The Stunning/Fun Category: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women & Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm

I have read so many new books in the stunning-and/or-fun category this month that I don’t know where to begin.  And so this is a “You’ve Got to Read This” post, a brief compilation of notes.

Lucia Berlin Manual for Cleaning Women ows_143896332265002If you are on a “reading from your shelves” kick, as so many bibliophiles are these days, make an exception for Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women:  Selected Stories, a stunning collection with an enthusiastic preface by Lydia Davis and an emotional introduction by editor Stephen Emerson.  Until the recent  publication of this book by FSG, Berlin’s work had been out of print for years, and was originally published by small presses.

These witty autobiographical stories are economical, buoyant, and moving.  Born in 1936, Berlin was raised in mining camps in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana, Texas, and, after World War II, her father moved them to Santiago, Chile.  She attended  the University of New Mexico.  Her first husband was a sculptor; her second a musician.  She raised four sons, mostly on her own.  She struggled with alcoholism and was in and out of rehab programs.  She worked as a cleaning woman, hospital clerk, high school teacher, college writing teacher, and physician’s assistant.

All of this is in the stories.

In “Angel’s Laundromat,” the narrator and “a tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a Zuni belt” do their laundry at Angel’s in Albuquerque.

The strange thing was that for a year or so we were always at Angel’s at the same time.  But not at the same times.  I mean some days I’d go out at seven on Monday or maybe at six thirty on a Friday evening and he would already be there.

The Indian, Tony, sits beside her drinking Jim Beam and tells her he is a chief. She says she got her first cigarette from a prince. During one of their laundry sessions his hands shake so badly that he gives her dimes so she can turn on the dryer for him.  Another time he passes out, and she and Angel, who has posted AA slogans on the walls, drag him into the back room and take care of him.  Not much happens , but her sympathetic encounters with Tony are quotidian until suddenly she realizes she has not seen him in a while.

In “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” she alternates vignettes about cleaning a client’s coke mirror with Windex with advice for cleaning women, like “As for cats…never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mops, the rags.”  In “Strays,” the narrator enjoys her time in a methadone rehabilitation program.

I especially love a series of stories about two sisters who become close after the younger is diagnosed with cancer.   Dolores, a nurse from California, moves to Mexico to take care of Sally, who has had a mastectomy and is grieving over her divorce.  In “Grief,” they take a vacation together, and Dolores persuades Sally to put on a swimsuit, and arranges a diving experience that brings joy back to Sally.    In “Fool to Cry,”Sally has found a lover, despite her chemo and sickness, and Dolores meets a former boyfriend who has lost all his charm.  The stories are poignant and tragic, yet Berlin also has zest and humor.  It gave me a new perspective on my own struggles, as great fiction does, even when they are not like the author’s.

Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock 51VidSbsxXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is labeled SF, but reads more like meta-fiction than fantasy.  He alternates a fascinating autobiography of his life in London as a writer and musician in the ’60s and ’70s with fictional forays into a strange land behind a wall in the heart of London where historical characters mingle with characters in fiction.

If you’re interested in the history of SF in the twentieth century, this is your book.  By the age of 16, Michael was editing SF magazines and writing his own SF.  He was able to write a book in two weeks.  His goal was to reunite the genres of literary and popular fiction.  His friends included innovative writers like Mervyn Peake and Philip K. Dick.

Moorcock mourns the passing of the ’60s, and so do I reading this. I came of age later, but I understood the zeitgeist.

We were an active part of the zeitgeist.  When I was twenty-five it was literary suicide to mention an enthusiasm for Mervyn Peake, and most critics ignored him.  Literary careerists avoided Peake, Firbank and others.  Not many read the French absurdists and existentialists…. The same was true of other writers, painters and composers.  Now Peake and visionaries like him are known to every educated household.  Culturally, we were a little ahead of the ’60s.

I love the autobiographical sections, but Goodreads reviewers prefer Michael’s fantastic trips to Alsacia.  There are many unusual elements in the Alsacia sections.   A “whispering swarm” hums so loudly in his ears that he cannot concentrate on his writing for long without going to Alsacia, where it seems he has special talents.  His adventures in Alsacia probably refer to the mix of pulp and literary fiction he wrote himself (but I don’t know Moorcock’s work except for the Elric books).

‘Nuff said.  This is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

A Very Short Trip to London!

Shall I go to Keats House?

Shall I go to Keats House?

I love London. The bookstores!   The theater!  (We can’t get tickets for Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, but nobody can.)  I hoped you might have suggestions for sightseeing, bookstores, etc., for our short trip to London.

How about literary events?  On Sunday at The London Lit Weekend, Sir Peter Stothard, classicist, writer, and editor of the TLS,  will chair a session with Tom Holland and Edith Hall on “Why the Classics Matter Today.”  Stothard is a stunning writer (read Alexandria:  The Last Days of Cleopatra), and I enjoyed Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus. But I have a bad record for ticketed events on vacation:  I skipped a literary event last time, because I didn’t feel like navigating the trains.  Perhaps I should read Holland’s new book instead?  (I’m waiting for Stothard’s next book.)

Is it necessary to see Chelsea and Soho, or was that a ’60s thing?  How about the antique shops on Kensington Church Street? Why can I only think of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington?  What’s your favorite place in London?

Last time I didn’t bother with Westminster. Should I?  Do I need to walk in St. James Park like Mrs. Dalloway?  I’m rereading Mrs. Dalloway for the trip.

My guidebook makes it sound as though Hampstead is in the wilds.  “[It] has always stayed aloof form London…”  But that’s where Keats House is.  And yet if I go to Keats House I will buy Keats merchandise.   Do I need more Keats books?  No.  But I might need the t-shirt.

Little-known museums?  Favorite ruins? Favorite restaurants? Plays I should see?

You-all helped me a lot in 2014, so please tell me your favorite London things.  This is just a mad dash! and no time for rendezvous or the English countryside.  You know London better than I…

An Online Betrayal: Were We Ever Friends?

exhausted-woman with head down at deskThe internet is my friend.

It is a great thing; it is a terrible thing.

I have won jobs through email; I have lost jobs through email.

It has given me a site to write this bookish blog.  As favorite bloggers close down their blogs, I have become increasingly frantic about finding new blogs. The good ones are few and far between.

Blogging is an old-fashioned, if rough-hewn, activity.  In terms of  the internet, blogs are “virtually” as polished as Montaigne’s essays or Pepys’s diary. The opinions and arguments are expressed at greater length and are better-developed than the short, snappy bits on Facebook and Twitter.  Amateurs toil in their spare time to share their opinions of books, movies, or politics.   I am talking about the tens of thousands or millions (I don’t know the numbers) of amateurs who love to write.

But the internet is a peripatetic community of the lonely and restless. We look for a connection we don’t have in our real lives: in my case  bookish friends!  For a few years we post on book boards; then it’s Yahoo or Google discussion groups ; then the online communities fight about Edward Said’s brilliant memoir Out of Time (politics, Jerusalem, and Palestine) or even Jane Austen (a source of great contention); the groups break up; they move on to  Goodreads; Twitter;, Pinterest, etc. .

It makes my head ache to think about all the electronic blips that mark our online lives.  Is the blog I deleted in 2005 still whizzing through cyberspace like a meteor?  How about those discussions on AOL of Wally Lamb and Andrea Barrett?

The internet can bring people with similar interests together.  I keep my expectations low.  I have enjoyed exchanging postcards, letters, and book with bloggers and members of my groups.  At the Southern Festival of Books dozens of members of an online book group met to, attend readings, chat, and go to restaurants.  We were not soulmates, but a certain loyalty united us.  Even if I never see S., C., R. P. or J. again, I will consider them my friends.

Recently i experienced an online betrayal.

An online friend  asked me to visit her.  I hadn’t flown in years and was eager to get out of the Midwest for a few days.  We went to concerts, the theater, and museums, and had a lovely time.  We have stayed in touch.

But recently she attacked me at her blog.  This is the kind of online interaction I dread, and yet we’re all involved in this kind of thing.  I wrote something about a writer she admired who was pulling out all the stops to make another writer look bad.  Then my friend wrote a blog attacking me for attacking the critical writer.

After she posted the blog, she sent me a note with the header:  “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”   I put it in the trash, dear reader.  I didn’t dare read anymore of it.  I was deeply hurt.

I am finally over it.  She is not a troll.  But isn’t there something wrong with our “break-up”?

It is the classic breakup on the internet.  When people find they are not soulmates, they hit at each other.

Puzzling and sad.   But it makes me question my online activities.  We all make mistakes.  Where do we draw the line?  Should we strive to be more polite so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings?  Should we stop criticizing writers and only write about the books we like?


Everyone draws a different line in the sand.

An Autumn Walk, Political Signs, & Vera Caspary’s “Laura” in “Women Crime Writers”

An autumn garden.

An autumn garden in the Midwest.

I dread the autumn, but there is no need to this year.  The light is enchanting. It is 80 degrees.  I feel like a character in a New England novel (preferably Jo in Little Women, who carries apples in her pocket and says, “Christopher Columbus!”). The leaves are a bit dry but a few flowers still bloom.

As W. S. Merwin says in “To the Light of September”:

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer

Nothing happening in the ‘hood today, but political signs are starting to appear in yards.

I SAW ONE HILLARY SIGN.  Hillary is strong, articulate, and even over-qualified, with a distinguished record as New York Senator and Secretary of State.  But will a woman ever be elected president in the U.S.?  The Republicans and the media are going after her, as usual:  if not about her email, it would be something else.   My mother, a political science major, was disappointed she didn’t live to see a woman in the White House. Will it be Hillary’s year?

The Hillary house.

I SAW TWO BERNIE SIGNS.  The popular Bernie Sanders, who got 72% of the vote for U.S. senator in Vermont in 2012, is catching up with Hillary in the polls. I can support him, but this ain’t Vermont:  can a socialist really compete with Hillary?


And now I’ll tell you what I’ve been reading (because that’s much more interesting).

Women Crime Writers Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s 51KoYBh1+5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was utterly engrossed by Vera Caspary’s Laura, a brilliant 1944 crime classic reissued in Women Crime Writers:  Four Suspense Novels of the 1940 (Library of America). This stunning mystery has so many angles: it’s like being in a hall of mirrors.  Laura was also made into a popular Otto Preminger film with Gene Tierney in 1944.

Laura is more than a tough crime classic.  It is also a psychological novel.  Who would want to kill popular Laura, a successful advertising executive about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a refined Southern copywriter?  Everybody loved Laura.  But then her maid finds her corpse  in her apartment:  the weapon was a sawed-off shotgun.

Told from three different points of view (it is actually more complicated), it traces the investigation of her murder.  It opens with the bitter narrative of her friend, Waldo Lydecker (Lie-decker?), an obese, pompous newspaper columnist who thinks no one is good enough for Laura.  He is irritated by the interrogation of the smart, masculine detective, Mark McPherson, whom he describes cynically as “a veritable Cassius who emphasized the lean and hungry look by clothing himself darkly in blue, double-breasted worsted, unadorned white shirt and dull tie.”  Waldo, who has written columns about crime, has one thing in common with Mark:  they both hate mystery fiction.  His voice is amusing as well as venomous.

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in the timid horde known as the reading public.  The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson….  I offer the narrative, not so much as a detective story but as a love story.

vera caspary laura_dellWhy is it a love story?  Waldo observes that the tough detective Mark is falling in love with Laura through  interviews with friends and suspects and the lovely objects and books in her apartment.   And Mark confirms it in his narrative. He began reading classics after he was shot and spent a long spell in the hospital.  He envies Laura her education, and wishes he had known her.   His working-class observations are sharper than those of Laura’s well-educated friends and relatives, because he is an outsider.

I can’t tell you who the third narrator is.  You will be shocked.

Another theme in Caspary’s novel is the difficulty of career women finding suitable men. And so I must share with you Laura’s maid Bessie’s view of Mark.

“A man,” Bessie said.  “Most of them that comes here are big babies or old women.  For once, even if he’s a dick, you’ve met a man.” And then, completely in the groove of man-worship, added, “Guess I’ll make a chocolate cake.”

Sarah Weinman,  editor of two Library of America volumes of Women Crime Writers, Sarah Weinman writes at the LOA blog about women’s “domestic suspense stories.”

 Domestic suspense is the mirror image of romance fiction; where romance is about conflict resolving into a happy ending, domestic suspense is about a happy beginning (of marriage, children, or independence) splintering into chaos. With the post-war economy on the upswing and new technology, like inexpensive cars and kitchen appliances, freshly available to couples and families, it seemed a simple thing to slip back into traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood, even if those roles were outmoded. Novels of domestic suspense took the fantasy of suburban living and uncovered the bile and dreck subsisting underneath, a clever subversion that also doubled as a mirror to sublimated terror.

I loved Laura, and can’t wait to read the other three in this  volume:  Helen Eustin’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.

Our Desert Island Lit Lists, or Who Says I’m Not Pop?

Should Jackie Collins books be displayed at the library?

Should Jackie Collins books be displayed at the library?

My cousin the librarian is in-your-face pop culture, as modern librarians tend to be.   She recently created a Jackie Collins display at the branch library.  I do not think the library should display Jackie Collins’ books, though I am sorry Collins died.  “How about a nice dead E. L. Doctorow display?”

“Why not Dickens?” She says I need a reality check because Jackie Collins fans check out more books than “litter-arrrry” readers.

A recent survey of my bookshelves did not reassure her that I am not too bookish. “No, no, no! Long ago discarded!”  she teases me about Gilbert Highet, Christopher Isherwood, and Pamela Hansford Johnson.  “No thinking woman clutters up her house with such rubbish.”

“That rubbish is my desert island list!”


Gilligan’s Island

Today, because of the desert island mention, she insisted we have a “Gilligan’s Island” marathon (it’s about castaways).    After three episodes, we gave up (the show is very dated) decided to make Desert Island Lit Lists.

We’re going to Nantucket.  Of course that’s a desert island!  There’s sand, isn’t there?

My cousin’s shocking list first, then mine.


Phyllis Whitney’s Listen for the Whisperer  (well-written romantic suspense).  The plot:  After her father’s death, Leigh goes to Norway to find the movie star mother she never knew, who  is being stalked by a murderer.   Suspense-full!

Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.  Set on a sheep station!  Romance with a priest!  Made into a miniseries!

Laura Lippmann’s Tess Monaghan series.  Yes, I am taking the whole series.  Five s, eight, twelve–who cares?

(She can take three Laura Lippmann books or five Laura Lippmann books.  That’s all!)


Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings.   It’s a Peter Wimsey mystery.  A hilariously fiery artist is murdered.   And there’s a pub in it.  And there’s a bicycle in it.  WHO SAYS I’M NOT POP?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  It’s very long, but I absolutely love it.  Sleighs, skating, dressing up, balls, bears strapped to policemen’s backs, travel, war: it has everything.  It is a page-turner.  I mean this.  WHO SAYS I’M NOT POP?

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.  Nancy kindly sent me a copy of this. Le Guin is one of the best American SF writers.  Online reviewers sat this dystopian novel is reminiscent of Brave New World.

Poems of Catullus (Latin).  These lyric poems are lovely, entertaining, extremely modern, and mostly short.  Every reader of Roman poetry knows his love poems about his unfaithful girlfriend Lesbia, who is thought to be based on a promiscuous older woman, Clodia Metelli, though I personally do not read these as autobiography.    I love his elegy to Lesbia’s dead pet sparrow, and invectives against Caesar, Cicero, and others.

I’D LOVE TO KNOW YOUR DESERT ISLAND LIT BOOKS.  What island will you go to???

The Dream of Paper Products & Suitable Shopping Outfits

Two-pocket folders!

                                             Two-pocket folders!

I went to the mall to buy two-pocket folders.

It is actually the dying mall.  The Gap moved out and the tattoo parlors have moved in. Signs at the entry invite you to tweet a picture of yourself.   Heavens, who ya gonna tweet at the mall?  I have no electronics in my purse.

First I went to Target.  A few years ago I stood in line behind a woman who said she could live anywhere with a Target. That would be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.  I know what she means.  I love Target.

I carried a big plastic basket into the office supplies section.  Cute notebooks, but I have cute notebooks.  The two-pocket folders had cover art featuring Hello, Kitty! and superheroes.  Disappointing.

I moved on to the office supply store.  I naively believed the Notebook section would have notebooks.  No, it was electronic tablets!   In the ’90s I wrote an article for a business magazine posing the question,  “Is the dream of the paperless office dead?”    It was then, but I fear it is alive again.

Finally I found suitable paper products. How can you go wrong with folders with floral designs and polka dots?

More folders IMG_3292I also bought pens, because I like to have the option of writing in purple or pink ink.

And then there are the post-it page markers.  I wanted the kind shaped like arrows.  They have no such thing. Has anyone used these post-it markers in books?  Do they ruin the paper?   There is a warning:  Test before using.  Not for my first editions of Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Barbara Pym!

One dreadful thing happened at the mall. I was wearing a bicycling outfit instead of a bicycling/shopping outfit, and when I passed a mirror I was appalled to see the threads hanging from my 15-year-old t-shirt. I rushed to a clothing store.   I went through the sales racks and found a suitable top.  “I’m going to wear this,” I told the cashier, who blipped her scanner at the tag.

The dream of a suitable shopping outfit isn’t dead!

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: Is It Funny?

AMis lucky jim t100_novels_lucky_jimI chortled as I reread Lucky Jim.

In Kingsley Amis’s brilliant academic satire, a novel I have loved since my college days, the hero, Jim Dixon, teaches medieval history at a provincial university.   He has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, steals a taxi from one of the more genial professors, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, which has the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

How could I not laugh? Kingsley Amis was an “angry young man.”  Jim is an angry young man. Jim’s article is tripe.

I reread Lucky Jim for a peculiar reason: Patricia Meyer Spacks trashed it in her fascinating book, On Rereading.

Spacks on Rereading 41ePBMKeIOL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Spacks’s vigorous, opinionated book is worth a look for the brilliant essay on Jane Austen’s Emma, but her readings of many twentieth-century novels are conservative.  Yes, she likes P. G. Wodehouse, but she dismisses Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as anti-male, hates J. D. Salinger’s classic, Catcher in the Rye, and deems Lucky Jim unfunny.  These three novels all challenge the assumptions of a capitalist society.

I’m wondering if Spacks so disliked Lucky Jim because it ridicules her profession.  She is the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia.

Amis’s entire novel is hysterically funny, but I especially like the scenes at the department chair Professor Welch’s arty weekend. They are expected to sing part-songs and madrigals, read a French play aloud (Jim has an odd accent), and watch a demonstration of sword-dance steps.

Although the other participants sing along jovially, Jim is unhappy.

Dixon ran his eyes along the lines of black dots, which seemed to go up and down a good deal, and was able to assure himself that everyone was going to have to sing all the time.  He’d had a bad setback twenty minutes ago in some Brahms rubbish which began with some ten seconds of unsupported tenor–more accurately, of unsupported Goldsmith, who’d twice dried up in face of a tricky interval and left him opening and shutting his mouth in silence….  Why hadn’t they had the decency to ask him if he wanted to join in, instead of driving him up on to this platform arrangement and forcing sheets of paper into his hand.

Jim escapes to the pub after a quarrel with Welch’s son, Bernard, a pompous artist. He is drunk when he returns.

I  had a similar, though less traumatic, experience as a young woman.  I was invited (I hope kindly) to a sophisticated colleague’s party.  We stood around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  It was a nightmare.

I can’t sing.  I grew up on the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Not a single Gilbert and Sullivan record in the house.  Nope.   I drank three imported beers.  This was frowned upon.  Perhaps those three beers were for the entire party!

Lucky Jim Amis penguin 0002It is not just Amis’s satire of academia that amuses me, but Jim’s alienation of those with control over his teaching contract.  Most of us have had jobs we don’t care for.  I wonder from Spacks’s criticism if we are allowed to admit this anymore.

And then there is the episode of the burnt sheets.

After Jim returns from the pub, he falls asleep while smoking.  When he awakes, he finds  he has burned holes in Mrs. Welch’s sheets, the blanket, the rug, and a table.  He cuts the holes into rectangles.  Despairingly, he shows the damage to Bertrand’s girlfriend, Christine, who laughs as she helps him smuggle the table into a storeroom.

Will Jim’s contract be renewed?

Such a charming, hilarious book!

A Russian Literature Binge: Turgenev’s On the Eve & Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, Vol. 1

turgenev on the EVE

Folio Society books are expensive, but they can help one recommit to the classics.  After acquiring lovely editions of Turgenev’s On the Eve and a four-volume set of Chekhov’s short stories, I spent a happy summer indulging my enthusiasm for 19th-century Russian literature.

Turgenev is not spoken of with the same breathlessness as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, perhaps because short books are considered less demanding.   But his lyrical style, sharp dialogue, and political and philosophical musings reflect the preoccupations of the time.  Fathers and Sons is Turgenev’s best-known work, but his other books are also little gems On the Eve (1860), his third novel, is an exquisite little book about politics and love that undeservedly has fallen out of print.  The Folio Society has reissued Gilbert Gardiner’s elegant translation, first published by Penguin in 1950.

Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written the year before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, this novel reflects Turgenev’s own restlessness on the brink of change.  Hisham Matar quotes one of his letters in the introduction.  Like one of his own despairing characters, Turgenev asks,

Is there any enthusiasm for anything left in the world?   Do people still know how to sacrifice themselves?  Can they enjoy life, behave foolishly, and have hopes for the future?

In On the Eve, Turgenev concentrates on four characters in their twenties, Bersyenev, a kind and studious philosopher, Shubin, an artist who often plays the clown, Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and Elena, the intense woman with whom all of them are in love.  The wealthy Elena has too little to do:  she reads widely and is charitable to the poor, but longs for something to take her out of herself. The daughter of a hypochondriac and a materialistic man with a mistress,   “she struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.”  After she almost died at 18, she  longed for love or some meaningful experience.

Sometimes it seemed that she wanted something that no one else wanted, that no one dreamed of in all Russia.  Then she would calm down, and spend day after day in carefree indifference, even laughing at herself; but suddenly some strong, some nameless thing which she could not control boiled up inside her and demanded to break out.  The storm passed, the tired wings dropped without being flow; but these moods were not without their cost…

turgeneve illustration elena EVE_13105504090

Illustration by Lauren Nassef (Folio Society)

Turgenev’s descriptions of the country are lyrical, the philosophical arguments among the young heroes are hugely enjoyable, the eternal conflicts between the generations are realistic, and Turgenev’s women struggle to balance love with their ideals.  In On the Eve, Bersyenev is by far the kindest character, but he does not get the girl. The revolutionary Insarov captures Elena’s love, and she becomes as political as he is.  Virgin Smoke, his last novel, also about politics, is perhaps is a better book, but I loved On the Eve, and the ending is surprising.  If you can find a copy, I urge you to read it.

I have struggled for years to comprehend the beauty of Chekhov’s stories in Constance Garnett’s translation:  “The Kiss,” “The Lady With the Dog,” and “Ward Number Six.”  Ronald Hingham’s translations, originally done for Oxford and reissued in this beautiful Folio Society set, have finally made me value the beauty of these stories.  Today I am writing only about Volume 1.

Chekhov folio society img_31331In Volume 1, “The Steppe” is by far my favorite.  It is really a 100-page novella, and the descriptive prose is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s.  There isn’t much of a plot.   Kuzmichov and Father Christopher Siriyski, both wool merchants, are on their way to the city to sell their  wool; they are taking Kuzmichov’s nine-year-old nephew with them so they can drop him off to his new school.  They stop at people’s houses to have dinner, camp out in fields and chat to rustics, and enjoy the ride.  Little happens, but the dialogue is comical, and the descriptions of the country are sheer poetry.

In “Thieves,” the medical orderly, Yergunov, “a nonentity known in his district as a great braggart and drunkard,” stops at an inn in a blizzard.  Also present are Kalashnikov, a horse thief, and Merik, a gypsy.  The blowsy barmaid, Lyubka, flirts with all of them, but it is clear that she is not serious about Yergunov.  These amateur criminals are way out of his league.    And when they cheat Yergunov of his horse, he is not even surprised.  More surprising is the fact that after  Yergunov loses his  job and been out of work for eighteen months he believes he has been missing out on fun andwonders if a good burglary might not be the ticket.

Is “Peasant Women.”  Chekhov uses a frame narrative to tell the story.  A traveller, Matthew, tells Dyudya, an entrepreneur who dabbles in everything from tar to honey and cattle, how he came to adopt a boy called Kuzka.  Matthew used to live next door to a woman whose new husband goes to war. Soon Matthew is seeing Mashenka every day and advising her about her business.  Soon after that, he moves in with her.

Then the husband returns, and things turn topsy turvy.  Both men try to persuade Mashenka to go back to her husband.  Instead, she kills him with arsenic because she is madly in love with Matthew.  She is sentenced to a prison term.  The son remains with Matthew.  And the women of Dyudya’s house cry because they see that Kuzka is badly treated by Matthew.  They think he needs to be with women, but they have no power.

Characterized by unexpected details, sharp dialogue, and masterly storytelling,  Chekhov’s stories are mysterious and elegiac, precise and realistic.  Hingley’s translation is excellent, and most of these stories appear in the Oxford World Classics edition of The Steppe and Other Stories.

Literary Links & News: Karen E. Bender on the National Book Awards Longlist, Stevie Smith, Witch Week, H. G. Wells’s Birthday, & Mary Beard on Epitaphs

Every once in a while I post Literary Links and News.

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

1. Karen E. Bender’s stunning short story collection, Refund, has made The National Book Awards Fiction longlist. I wrote about it here in January and interviewed her  here.  Refund is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I certainly hope it wins.  Go, Karen!

The complete longlist is:

Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide (Pantheon Books)

Karen E. Bender, Refund: Stories (Counterpoint Press)

Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press/Simon & Schuster)

Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles: Stories (Random House)

T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow/HarperCollins)

Edith Pearlman, Honeydew (Little, Brown/Hachette Book Group)

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Doubleday/Penguin Random House)

Nell Zink, Mislaid (Ecco/HarperCollins)

Collected poems and drawings of stevie smith 97805713113092. Will May writes about The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith in The Guardian.  He edited the book, which will be published in October.  I covet it!

3. Lory is sponsoring Witch Week at her blog, The Emerald City Review (Oct. 31-Nov. 5). This year’s theme is “New Tales from Old,” fiction derived from fairy tales, folklore or myth, or other old stories.   Post your suggestions for reading at her blog.


H. G. Wells

4. “H. G. Wells Invented Everything You Love” is the title of a brief essay by Leah Schnelbach at Today is his birthday.  Not only did he write great SF, but he slept with many of my favorite writers, among them Rebecca West and Elizabeth von Arnim.  (Okay, that’s a digression, but he did invent much that we love.)

5. At her blog at the TLS, Mary Beard writes a fascinating short piece on Roman memorials and epitaphs.  Beard is a celebrity classicist who has popularized Roman history in her accessible books and often questions our assumptions.

Doubles in Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” & Erica Jong’s “Fear of Dying;” And Books I’ll Never Blog About

Erica Jong Fear of Dying 41zXii1q0qL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Story of a New Name by Ferrante 41nSyupOdRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am far, far behind in blogging about books. Will I ever catch up?  Well, no.  I write Mirabile Dictu four to six days a week (whew!), so I sometimes choose only marginally bookish topics.

But today I had a brainstorm: doubling up on two novels about doubles, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name and Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying.

In 2013 I read the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend.  I enjoyed it, but it was a bit like reading  an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I didn’t continue with the series, till every publication in the world had praised the tetralogy. I finally read the second novel, The Story of a New Name.

It is easy to see why these books are best-sellers. Ann Goldstein’s translations are elegant, and they are very fast reads.  There is something for the literary reader, and something for the reader of pop fiction.   On the Sept. 20 New York Times Best-Seller list, My Briliant Friend is No. 6 and the latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, is No. 7.

The Story of a New Name is a delightful realistic novel.  Still, I quickly sussed out that it is about doubles, and even possession,  rather than a literal friendship.   Elena, the novelist narrator, and Lila, the troublemaker, are childhood friends who squabble, compete, adore writing, read the same copy of Little Women, and grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples.  Lila breaks all the rules, but is ultimately the least fortunate: she drops out of school to work in her father’s shoe shop and marries the grocer’s son at 16, while  Elena achieves their childhood dreams by graduating from secondary school, going to college, and becoming a writer.

The Story of a New Name begins with Elena’s destroying Lila’s secret childhood notebooks.  Lila, fearful that her husband will  read them, entrusts them to Elena.  Elena reads them, memorizes her favorite parts, and yet is disturbed by a certain artificiality.  She  pushes the box of notebooks off a bridge because  “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples….”

Later in the book, when they are on vacation at the beach without Lila’s husband, Lila swipes Elena’s boyfriend, Nino, seemingly because she has to have whatever Elena has.  She also reads the books Nino lends to Elena and talks more intelligently about Beckett and politics.  She trumps whatever Elena or Nino says.

Elena is furious.

I couldn’t take it anymore.  What I already knew and what I nevertheless was hiding from myself became perfectly clear:  she, too, now saw Nino as the only person able to save her.  She had taken possession of my old feeling, had made it her own.  And, knowing what she was like, I had no doubts:  she would knock down every obstacle and continue to the end.

By the end of the book, Elena has written her thesis on Book IV of the Aeneid, graduated from college, and published her first novel.  At home in Naples, she receives her own package of  childhood notebooks from the sister of a dead teacher. The notebooks are charming, and Elena smiles at the spelling mistakes and the “good”s and “excellent”s in the margins.  But in the midst of her notebooks, she finds Lila’s little book, The Blue Fairy, which Lila wrote as a child.  And then she realizes that Lila’s The Blue Fairy had inspired her own novel. Their lives are parallel.  They are almost like one person.  Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates?  Yes, perhaps:  we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person.  Elena and Lila are like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Erica Jong

   Erica Jong

Don’t underrate Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying a brilliant little novel about aging, sex, and death.  Jong, 73, is one of the old-style feminists who believe in power and sex for women.  She is often compared to Henry Miller, that risk-taking novelist whose lively, philosophical, autobiographical novels about sex were banned until 1964.

I thought this was a sequel to Fear of Flying, Jong’s first novel, the story of Isadora Wing, a writer in search of the “zipless fuck.” Alas, Fear of Dying is not about Isadora, but it hardly matters, because the narrator, Vanessa Wonderman, is Isadora’s friend.  They are so alike they might as well be doubles.

Vanessa, 60, is a retired actress, best known for her role as a villainess in a soap opera.  The daughter of two actors who owned a rare bookstore, she wears $1,000-shoes and is a believer in plastic surgery.  But ignore her wealth:  her feelings are the feelings of any older woman, hating the thought of moving beyond her prime.  Her rich husband, Asher,  is in the hospital after an aneurism.  When she is not at the hospital with Asher, she visits her parents, in their nineties, who are not always cognizant of who she is, and are dying in their apartment, with 24-hour caregivers, when they are not in the hospital.

Vanessa hates the prospect of losing her parents.  She also hates getting older herself.  She is losing her looks: now her daughter has them now.  Vanessa, who misses the days when men ogled her, badly needs sex. Can we blame her for looking for it at  She meets a normal-looking man who takes her to a hotel and wants her to wear a rubber suit.  When she says no, he calls her a bitch.

Vanessa’s and Isadora’s sharing of women’s wisdom at frequent meetings is one of the highlights of the book.At a coffehouse, Isadora joshes her about the rubber suit.  “HOw do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

But then…

“At one point in my life I may have been a love junkie, but it taught me a lot–and I would never be fooled by a site like Zipless now–even though I named it.  Sex on the internet is much overrated.”


“Because most people drawn there are confusing fantasy with reality.  They think they know what they want, but they don’t.”

“What do they really want?”

“Connection.  Slow sex in a fast world.  You can’t get that from a woman in a rubber suit.  Or a man.”

I think about it.  Isadora is right.  We all want connection, and the velocity of our culture makes it harder and harder to find.

And I think that both Isadora and Vanessa are right.

Surprisingly, the book follows the trajectory of a Jane Austen novel.  Marriage is stability, and we learn whether or not the sex can be repaired.  It’s a sad book, but a very good one.  Vanessa finds what she is looking for.

Before I go, here is a  short list of books I loved but will not be blogging about.

  1.  huxley point counter point c69eb10e5f34e9d21de54b8a8cbacb94Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, a brilliant 1920s satiric novel about Bright Young Things, with a huge cast of characters, writers, artists, scientists, anarchists and suicides.  So many miserable love affairs!
  2. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.  Often compared to Hamlet, this Jacobean revenge tragedy makes Hamlet’s meditation and play within the play seem tame.  Vindice chats to his dead girlfriend’s skull, vowing revenge on the Duke who poisoned her when she refused to sleep with him. That skull is really creepy.  Vindice and his brother get so carried away that almost everybody dies!  (This fascinating play, which I’d love to see, used to be attributed to Cyril Tourneur.)
  3. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse.  A classic mystery, said by A. S. Byatt to be her favorite.  She wrote the intro to the new Folio Society edition.
  4. Jean Kerr’s Penny Candy.  A delightful collection of humor pieces by the author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.  I laughed hard when she goes to a play and  is wearing the same dress as the transvestite on stage.