At the Library

My stack from the library!

My loot from the library!

Once or twice a year we go to a university library.  We must if we want something even slightly obscure, because we can’t buy  all of our books, and these superb libraries are open to the public for a small fee.  We look for vintage mysteries, letters and autobiographies of historical figures,  quirky 1960s feminist  books, and the humorous stories of George Ade.  Today I came home with a very good haul:  Mary Norton’s Bread and Butter Stories (Virago), Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country (Persephone),  Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (a Booker Prize finalist from the ’80s), and a tatty out-of-print 1925 novel, The Celestial City, by Baroness Orczy.

I never made it out of the British lit section.


Great collection, but the fluorescent lights are terrible!

I love browsing.  Look at the photo of these wonderful stacks of British and Canadian literature.  They fill a large, long room on the top floor.  The American literature and the foreign languages were recently transferred to the basement because of a mould problem.  There are also two floors devoted to what I call “tech books.” When desperate, you can check out something with math in it, or teach yourself organic chemistry.

I hate the flourescent lighting, which turns everything a weird yellow. I wish they would update it.   But you can sit in the lovely reading areas, alcoves with natural light.  And I have seen worse.  In the beautiful town of Bloomington, Indiana, the university library has an astonishing collection but no windows above the second floor.  We used to read in a glassed-in smoking lounge for the natural light, though we didn’t smoke.  No one was all that upset about smoking in those days.

There are some stunning public libraries in the midwest, but ours is not one of them.  It is good for the newest books,  but they have discarded so many, many wonderful old books that I despair.   All the books by Angela Thirkell have been weeded.  I checked them out regularly, but they are still gone.  You will seldom, if ever, find a Virago, a Persephone, a Europa, or university press book.  I did persuade them to order a few NYRB titles, and I give them credit for that. They are open to suggestions.   But they have moved all the books by early twentieth-century writers Ruth Suckow and Bess Streeter Aldrich, both born in Iowa, to the non-circulating Iowa stacks.  I am bewildered by that.  Heavens, there is a Ruth Suckow Memorial Association and  her birthplace in Hawarden, Iowa, is  a museum.

Oh, well, I digress.  Back to the university library!  We looked at the Grant Wood murals, commissioned by the Iowa State University Library in the 1930s.

Grant Wood (1892-1942), the regionalist artist best known for American Gothic,  planned and coordinated this series of WPA murals.  He was  appointed head of the Public Works of Art Project for Iowa, a federal program providing work for unemployed artists.  Wood designed the murals, while other artists did the enlargements and the painting.  The theme was  inspired by the following quote by Daniel Webster:  “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

imageAbove is a painting of a veterinarian getting ready to give a shot to a pig!  There is a school of agriculture and a veterinary medicine school.  (N.B.: It is sometimes known as Moo U.)  And, by the way, you should read Jane Smiley’s Moo, a satire of a school like Iowa State, where she used to teach.

imageIn the middle panel is a very cool machine–doing something! and on the right and left people are doing scientific experiments.  (Sorry, the right panel didn’t show up here, but you can see it below.)

imageThe only REAL person in the photo above is the man in the red jacket.  The others are oil paintings!


This man chopping wood is a detail from another mural.

Who knew you could have so much fun at a library!

Concerts Instead of Caucuses!

Obama and Bruce Springsteen in Iowa, Nov. 5, 2012

How I wish I’d seen Obama and Bruce Springsteen in 2012!

The presidential candidates have descended upon us.  It’s a bit like being visited by Zeus, Athena, and the other gods.   Iowa always has the first caucuses (Feb. 1 this year). The candidates woo us for six months to a year before the caucuses: they give speeches in August at the State Fair , which I last attended in 2001  for a Bob Dylan concert, and at rallies I never hear about till afterwards. This year I missed Hillary and Katy Perry, whose music, I must admit, I do not listen to.  I also missed Lena Dunham, author of Not That Kind of Girl, campaigning for Hillary. A few year ago I missed Obama and Bruce Springsteen. So many celebrities!  But we were swept away by a Bernie commercial with a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack: it’s like Woodstock without mud or drugs (the best kind of concert).

Music counts!

Hillary with Kate Perry and Bil.

Hillary with Katy Perry and Bill.

I have not seen a politician speak live since McGovern in 1972. “I am pro-Choice and I vote,” as we used to say when I was a volunteer at NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League), but nowadays I attend writers’ readings instead of politicians’ speeches.  I will  vote for the Democratic candidate next November, whoever it may be.   That said, we are a Hillary family.  I received my Hillary caucus guide in the mail today.  I also received a Bernie flyer and, later, found an O’Malley card slung over the door handle.

I saw five political ads during a rerun of “The Big Bang Theory.” Hillary’s are practical; Bernie is a visionary.  I can’t tell any of the Republicans apart, except Trump and Jeb, the least extreme.  There were a couple of Trump-bashing ads by the Republicans that make him look liberal by their standards and set him apart from the Christian rednecks and would-be Ku Klux Klanners.  I must admit, I burst out laughing when I saw Trump on the news at the State Fair and he said he wanted to build a wall along the Southern borders. I thought he was joking.  He was not. That said, he’s less crazy than the others.  Michael Moore says Trump does performance art. Welllllll…..

Anyway, if you’re in Iowa, this is How You Survive the Canvassing & the Caucuses.

1 Never open the door to a canvasser.  The canvassers are all impossibly beautiful and handsome but they are not like you and me:  they have been exported from the coasts to woo us. It’s hard to align Hillary and Bernie with a beautiful woman whose shade of blonde cannot be found in a salon anywhere in Iowa, but she knocked on my door and I answered because I thought it was UPS.    Botticelli’s Venus? Perhaps. In 2004 when I I answered the door to a canvasser, I ended up caucusing for Howard Dean, who became famous for the “Dean scream,” which, by the way, did not happen.  The  “scream”shown on the network news was two seconds of an ordinary speech out of context.

2. Bring your phones or tablets to the caucuses so you can play discreet online scrabble, because you will be there a while.   The caucuses are vaguely reminiscent of junior high pep rallies. They are held in school gyms, auditoriums, churches, libraries, and other sneaker-smelling public buildings.  You sign in and then  sit (or stand if there are no chairs) in your candidate’s section. There is milling and thronging, sitting idly on bleachers or folding chairs, important people trying to persuade others to change sides (sometimes a candidate is not viable, because he has too few supporters), and finally, a couple of hours later, a head count is taken of the various candidates’ supporters.  The results are tallied in all the counties, and determine the “win, show, place” positions of candidates and the number of delegates for each candidate at the convention.  It is a long process!

Rah rah rah!  I wish we had concerts instead of caucuses.  It would be so much more fun to vote for  Hillary at a Chrissy Hynde concert, or Bernie with Simon and Garfunkel, etc.  You’d get a better turnout, too.  If you’re going to be there a while, why not listen to music?

And now I want to go listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”  What a great song.

Tired: Sleep Disorders in Literature

Take one and call me in the morning!

I was flat-on-my-back tired today.  I read and stared at the ceiling.  I’m not hallucinating, or at least I don’t think I am, but the living room ceiling looks high–higher than the kitchen ceiling. So I took a nap. I got up in time for a doctor’s appointment, where I apologized for seeming slow and tired.  The doctor says I don’t seem slow and tired.  Whew!  What a relief. When I came home, I drank coffee.  The ceiling looked normal.   I’m getting a cold.  I thought I was seriously tired, but it’s just a cold.

While I was sleepy,  I began to think about sleep disorders in literature, because colds are so unromantic.

Here is a Short List of Sleep Disorders in Lit

There will never be another you 418OyfanR7L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_1 In Carolyn See’s There Will Never Be Another You, set in a post-9/11 near future shaped by paranoia about terrorism, teams of doctors are trained to deal with chemical or biological attacks. Edith’s son is one of the doctors, but she doesn’t care about this aspect of life right now.  She  is grieving over her husband’s death, and takes an Ambien every time she wakes up, so she can sleep round the clock.

Edith says,

I woke up on the couch, where I’d been sleeping for the last two months. I was alone.  I looked at the ceiling for quite a long time. and then I said, “Let me just keep my eyes open.”

The insomnia, pills, and grief are a small part of a very complicated novel. See’s strange, lively, brilliant novels are always surprising and beautiful.

the odd woman gail godwin 97803453899162 Gail Godwin is excellent on insomnia in her 1974 novel, The Odd Woman.  The heroine, Jane, an English professor at a Midwestern university, has insomnia, and, no wonder! Her life is a mess! She is having an affair with a married man, she realizes she cannot give failing grades to the scatty papers turned in by a hippie draft dodger and a black student from the ghetto, and then her grandmother dies.  Jane’s mother has serious insomnia.

Her mother, Kitty, a veteran insomniac of many years, read spiritual guides.  She had a large collection of them in different languages, spanning the centuries from Boethius to Thomas Merton, and she kept them stacked, according to a private rotating section, on the tray table next to her side of the bed which she shared–after almost 25 years–with Jane’s stepfather, Ray. … When the malady grew more challenging,… she resurrected her Latin or went into the tongue of her father’s forebears.  And recnetly–as if she anticipated further demands on her nights–she had been teaching herself Italian with a dual-language edition of La Vita Nuva.

the-lathe-of-heaven3 Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.  Le Guin, an  award-winning science fiction writer, is always compelling, but I have never returned to this terrifying novel.  The hero, George Orr, has dreams that alter reality, and takes drugs to try to control it, then consults a manipulative psychotherapist who does not have his best interests at heart.

4 Gabriel García Márquez’s The Hundred Years of Solitude. If you like magic realism, you’ll love this mythic novel. At one point, a mythical Latin American town, Macondo, is struck by a plague of insomnia.  The insomniacs no longer remember the names of objects, plants and animals, and have to label them.

wuthering heights signet blogger-whEmily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. There is more than one dream in Wuthering Heights, a story of doomed love.  Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an orphan, are reaised together and are soulmates.   After Catherine’s father dies, her brother, Hindley, turns  Heathcliff into a farmhand, and Catherine ditches him for the refined Edgar Linton, Before she marries Edgar, she has  dream in which she goes to heaven and gets thrown out because she weeps  to “come back to earth.” She knows that she should not marry Linton, because Heathcliff is her other half.

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

6. Last but not least, here is a beautiful “Ode to Sleep” by Statius, translated by Kathleen Coleman.  POETRY WILL CURE YOUR INSOMNIA!

What is the charge, young god, what have I done
Alone to be denied, in desperate straits,
Epitome of Calm, your treasure, Sleep?
Hush holds enmeshed each herd, fowl, prowling beast;
The trees, capitulating, nod to aching sleep:
The raging floods relinquish their frim roar;
The heavy sea has ceased and oceans curl
Upon the lap of land to sink in rest.
The moon has now in seven visits seen
My wild eyes staring; seven stars of dawn
And twilight have returned to me
And sunrise, transient witness of distress,
Has in compassion sprayed dew from her whip.
Where is the strength I need? It would defeat
The consecrated Argus, thousand-eyed,
Despite the watch which one part of him keeps,
Nerves taut, on guard relentlessly.
On Sleep, some couple, bodies interlocked,
Must shut you from their night-long ecstasy;
So come to me. I issue no demand
that you enfold my eyes’ gaze with your wings —
Let all the world, more fortunate, beg that.
Your wand-tip’s mere caress, your hovering form
Poised lightly on tiptoe; that is enough.

What to Read When It’s Cold: Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, Sarah Vincent’s The Testament of Vida Tremayne, & Books on My Nightstnd

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             A light snow.

It’s snowing.  Just a light snowfall.

But our house is very cold.  And so I am sitting under one blanket and four comforters.  I am drinking Mellow Moments herbal tea.  A cat is sitting on my feet.  Another cat is sitting under the top comforter. We are keeping warm as best we can.

Since I (very slightly) neatened the bedroom, we are down to 10 books on the bookstand.  Classics, literary fiction, best-sellers, genre books–you name it.

In winter you can read something heavy, or something light.  Any literary distraction is welcome.  Here’s what I’ve been reading, some still in progress, followed by a list of books on my nightstand.

The Winds of War Herman Wouk 214841. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War.  At the age of 100, Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny, is in the news:  he has written a memoir.  I have long meant to read his critically-acclaimed novels about World War II,  The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance.  And so I downloaded The Winds of War on the e-reader

Let me just say The Winds of War is gripping.  I tore through 270 of 886 pages, and can’t wait to tear through another 270 pages.  Wouk writes very smoothly and intelligently, and he tells a good, no, a great, well-plotted story.  This well-crafted historical novel revolves around the Henry family:  in 1939,  just before the German invasion of Poland, Victor “Pug” Henry, a naval officer, has been offered the position of US Naval attaché in Berlin and reluctantly accepted it.  (He prefers to be on a ship.)  His beautiful wife, Rhoda, who is used to moving around with her husband, prefers a city to a naval base.   Their oldest son, Warren, is a naval officer, their daughter Madeleine is a student who makes herself indispensible at a rradio station, and their other son, Byron, rebelliously refuses to go into the Navy and, works as a secretary for a Jewish writer in Italy, where he falls in love with Jastrow’s niece, Natalie Jastrow.  Then, despite all the rumors about Hitler,  he and Natalie go off on a wild jaunt to Poland, to visit her ambassador boyfriend in Warsaw and iattend  a family wedding in a Polish village.  Then the Germans attack, and  on a dangerous car trip back to Warsaw with the wedding party, Byron is wounded, his passport is taken away, but they continue on, because he knows it’s a very bad idea to stick around the Germans.  In Warsaw they meet more danger and deprivation, but to Byron it is an adventure and to Natalie an opportunity to volunteer as a nurse at the hospital.

Here is an example of Wouk’s crystalline prose.

It took them two days to go the ninety-five kilometers.  While it was happening it seemed to Byron a saga that he would be telling his grandchildren, if he lived through it.  But so much happened afterward to him that his five-day trip from Cracow to Warsaw soon became a garbled memory.  The breakdown of the water pump that halted them for half a day, on a deserted back road in a forest, until Byron, tinkering with it in a daze of illness, to his astonishment got it to work; the leak in the gas tank that compelled them to take great risks to buy more; the disappearance of the hysterical bride from the hayfield where they spent one night and the long search for her; the two blood-caked boys they found asleep by the roadside, who had a confused story of falling out of a truck and who rode the last thirty kilometers to Warsaw sitting on wooden slats on the sizzling hood of the Fiat–all this dimmed.  But he always remembered how ungodly sick to the stomach he was, and the horrible embarrassment of his frequent excursions into the bushes…

If you’re not up to War and Peace, which is my favorite book, try Wouk’s best-seller, which he considered his War and Peace. 

The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent 235837702. I admired and enjoyed Sarah Vincent’s The Testament of Vida Tremayne,  a 2014 novel I discovered by accident–I had mixed it up with another book.   It is utterly fascinating, the convoluted story, told partly in a journal, partly in a traditional narrative, of the thorny relationship between Vida, a writer, and her successful, materialistic, non-literary realtor daughter, Dory.  The two women also must examine their sudden intense  friendship with a mad, mysterious fan, who writes to Vida and then insinuates herself into the house.  The book turns on a dime from a cozy realistic literary novel into  literary horror.

Vida is a  blocked writer whose literary novels no longer sell; her publisher wants her to start writing vampire novels. She loved her country house, named “The Gingerbread House,” after her cricially-acclaimed novel of the same title, but after her husband leaves her, she finds the house too quiet.  Her daughter Dory, who hates leaving London to visit her mother in the country, finds Vida collapsed in her kitchen .  Vida falls into a catatonic state in a mental hospital and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When Dory goes back to the house, she finds that a woman, Rhiannon, who claims to be living there, is back from London.   Dory is amazed by how quickly Rhiannon, her mother’s fan, becomes her friend, too:  there is lots of looking into eyes and sympathetic responses.  But Dory reads Vida’s journal, and learns about Rhiannon’s scatty program for removing blocks to creativity.  Don’t sign up unless you like starvation, incense, scrubbing floors, no reading or writing, meditation, and pumas.


1. Homer’s Iliad (in Greek)

2. Caroline Alexander’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad, the first by a woman.

3. Angela Thirkell’s Wild Strawberries

4. The Julian Symons Omnibus

5. Ovid’s Fasti

6. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (magnificent!)

7. Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris

8.  The Diary of Anais Nin

9. Emily Kimbrough’s So Near and Yet So Far

10. Chekhov’s short stories (Folio Society four-volume set)

SO MANY GREAT BOOKS!  What to read next?

Sheila Kaye-Smith’s The End of the House of Alard

Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith

I began to read Sheila Kaye-Smith after the writer Charlotte Moore recommended her in a “Books of the Year” article in The Spectator. 

Last year I very much enjoyed Joanna Godden, Kaye-Smith’s intriguing, if inelegant, novel about a woman sheep farmer.  And recently I found a free copy of The End of the House of Alard at Internet Archive. Published in 1923, it is the absorbing story of the fall of the aristocratic Alard family.  It begins by sketching the history of the Alards, from their earliest ancestor in  the Crusades to the present squire, Sir John, in the twentieth century.  The Alards still have their estate at the end of World War I,  but no money, partly because of Sir John’s bad investments, mostly because of the war.

end of the house of alard sheila kaye-smith 2119983_150814173718_IMG_1970This  is a departure from Kaye-Smith’s early rural novels, which Stella Gibbon satirized in Cold Comfort Farm, along with books by Mary Webb and D. H. Lawrence  But it is easy to see why The End of the House of Alards was a best-seller.  She fascinatingly portrays the consequences of the war and the changing culture.  The Alard veterans of the Great War are still harnessed by tradition, while the younger Alards question social class as they fall in and out of love or seek meaningful work.   The oldest son, Hugh, was killed in the war, but two other sons survived:   Peter, the new heir, will manage the estate, while George, a clergyman, holds the family living.

The return of the heir is the impetus of the novel, almost a satire of other such returns of heirs.  In the second chapter, the family is excited as they await Peter’s homecoming.  His mother barely recognizes him out of uniform; he has become much  heavier and more stolid.  Even the writing here is a bit heavy-handed, I’m afraid.  (But I loved the book).

Here is how the house looks to Peter.

The drawing room was just the same as it had always been….The same heavy dignity of line in the old walls and oak-ribbed cieling spoilt by undue crowding of pictures and furniture.  Hothouse flowers stood about in pots and filled vases innumerable… a water-colour portrait of himself as a child faced him as he came into the room.

Although Peter is conventional, he has been changed by the war. For one thing, he is untraditional in love.  He is in passionately love with the doctor’s sexy, intelligent Catholic daughter, Stella Mount.  (Yes, I noticed that name, too.)  Their idyll is vaguely reminiscent of love affairs in D. H. Lawrence’s novels, though Peter doesn’t have a Lawrentian mind.  He lets himself be talked out of marrying  middle-class Stella, and marries a rich Jewish woman for her money. (An anti-Semitic portrait of his wife:  write it off to the times. The point is not the woman, but that he sold out.)

Mary, the only married daughter, is also unhappily married.  She leaves her rich husband to live on her own and he divorces her on fallacious grounds of adultery.  Her father forces her to defend the suit, and there is a scandal.  Finally she goes quietly away

The youngest brother, Gervase, a Catholic convert, has broken with the old life –to an extent that shocks even his most liberal sisters, Mary and Jenny.  Reverend George is crushed when he realizes the Catholic church offers more comfort and ritual to Gervase than his own Anglican church and good works.

And Jenny, who cannot meet an appropriate man, consciously decides to chase the rich farmer to whom she is attracted, Godfrey who has bought land from the Alards.

On the morning when she first goes to flirt with him,  she thinks of Stella.

She remembered once being a little shocked by Stella Mount, who had confided that she liked making love herself just as much as being made love to….  well, Jenny was not exactly going to make love, but she was going to do something just as forward, just as far from the code of well-bred people–she was going to show a man in a class beneath her that she cared for hm, that she wanted his admiration, his courtship…

The oldest sister, Mary, is a hysterical spinster, devoted to her parents, and envious of the young.  The youngest Alards have the best chance of happiness, because they reject the past.

This novel is much better-written than Joanna Godden, and I look forward to reading more of Kaye-Smith’s novels.

Tessa Hadley’s The Past

Tessa Hadley the past 51n7rWGvpYL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

I have always read compusively in the English canon.  As a girl I indiscriminately read Rumer Godden, E. Nesbit, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Dickens, and unconciously read them as fantasies, so different were they from my life.   Later, I considered moving to England.  And then I discovered the novels of Margaret Drabble, whose characters, especially Rose in The Needle’s Eye, an heiress who chooses to live in a rundown house in a crumbling London neighborhood, convinced me I was  living an English life in the U.S. anyway (except the heiress part).

A few years ago, I discovered the writer Tessa Hadley.  Although she is not as polished as Drabble, she is continuing  the tradition of Drabble’s intelligent novels about the vicissitudes of  middle-class women’s lives.  Hadley’s writing is lyrical yet slightly flat, and, like Drabble, she seamlessly interweaves English life, history, literature, and the changing culture.  Reading her new novel, The Past, is a transcendent experience: every sentence is exquisitely crafted, and every character brilliantly alive. The book has a tripartite structure:  “The Present,” “The Past,” and “The Present.”

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

In the first and last sections, called “The Present,” four adult siblings spend a three-week vacation together in the dilapidated, moldering rectory where their mother grew up and their grandparents lived for decades.  They must decide whether to keep or sell this summer cottage.  The characters are irritating as they obsess and bicker.

Fortunately this is interrupted by the powerful middle section, “The Past,” which elucidates our understanding of their entwined yet separate views of the past, and makes this a luminous novel.

In “The Present,  two of the siblings are content with their holidays; the others are deeply bored or confront their unhappiness. Harriet, the oldest, a former radical, advises asylum seekers and has an unsatisfying personal life; Roland, a popular philosopher, pays little attention to his sisters because he has a new wife, Pilar, a beautiful lawyer from Argentina; Alice, a former actress, is the most imaginative and connected to their past; and Fran, a math teacher with two unruly children, is furious at her husband, Jeff, who is away with his band. Alice has also invited an old boyfriend’s son, Kasim, who is bored in college, and he falls for Molly, Roland’s teenage daughter by an earlier wife.

Alice, the middle sister, is the central character, a kind of actressy Antigone who refuses to bury the culture of the past.   It is she who loves the moldering country rectory uncritically, though it needs a new roof and many other repairs.  She is the most nostalgic character, and recaptures the past by rereading their mother’s and their own children’s books–she starts with E. Nesbit’s  The Wouldbegoods–and their grandmother’s letters. But, typically, she arrives without her key, and begins the visit by looking in the windows.

From the beginning, the siblings squabble about what the past means.  Alice holds forth “in one of her diatribes against modern life”  that modern objects are not beautiful and have no meaning.  Roland is “wary of [her] evaluative judgements,” while Harriet dismisses her romanticism.  Fran also gangs up against her.

–It’s a bit late for peasants carving bowls, Alice, Fran said.–I don’t think you’re going to get that particular genie back into its bottle.

–Not just peasants.  It’s the way that people lived more slowly, and kept the same things all their lives, and took care of them.  Our whole relationship to the things we owned was different.  I hate how we throw everything away now.

Alice was more of an actress in her private life, Roland thought, than she ever was in the years when she had tried to be one on the stage.

The children also play a complicated part in the story.  There is danger in the beautiful woods for all four of them, from the youngest to Kasim.   While Kasim sleeps outdoors, Fran’s young children, Ivy and Arthur, wander into a deserted cottage; they  find porn magazines and a dead dog.  Horrified, they recognize the dog as Mitzi, a neighbor’s dog.  They tell no one, and Ivy revisits the scene, then brings back Arthur, where they play a complicated game.  They are both upset by the death of Mitzi, and yet tell no one.

Why all the dead dog scenes?  Dogs in literature so often meet a terrible end, have you noticed?  And the meaning of the dead dog is…  well, I never figure that out. MIt’s a bit Gothic.

But all is forgiven after reading “The Past,” the illuminating story of Jill Fellowes, their mother, who,  in 1968, leaves her adulterous journalist husband  and takes her three children to her parent’s house, hoping to start a new life there.  She is sweaty, earthy, and sexy, and candidly admits that she and the children stink after a long ride on the train and the people who drove them from the station will have to air out their car.  Jill loves being on her own, and looks at houses for rent, including the cottage in the woods (where the dead dog now is).    This section reads like a miniature Margaret Drabble novel.  And Jill happens to be reading a library book by Margaret Drabble.  Tragically, Jill dies of cancer.  It is “The Past” that makes the rest of the book so luminous.

According to Hadley in the acknowledgements, she has borrowed the structure from Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris.  Reviewers have all discussed the influence of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.  No mention of Drabble, but it’s here.  Hadley wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian on Drabble’s The Millstone.

An excellent read!

What If We Were Neatniks?, My Mother’s Treasure Chest, & the Hillary Caucus Kit

My mother's treasure chest!

My mother’s “treasure chest,” faded from the sun and detassled by cats!

This week I am “decluttering.”  After I disposed of several bags of recyclables and just plain trash, my husband began to worry about our future.

“Wouldn’t if be awful if one of us was a neatnik?” he wondered, as I cleared out cupboards to make room for his penny jars, notebooks, paperclips, reference books, and ski paraphernalia.

He needn’t worry.  I am doing this because I miss my neatnik mother.  While I put away our CDs, hung up sweatshirts, and tossed away ” cat fishing poles” from which toy mice and feathers hd been chewed off, I suddenly remembered I had her fabric-covered “treasure chest” on the sun porch.  I brought it inside, realizing it would be perfect for storing some  miscellanea.

But first I had to sort the papers inside.  There were many funeral programs and obituaries.   She also saved newspaper articles about St. Pat’s Church, destroyed in a tornado in 2006 and rebuilt on the edge of town in 2009  (too far for her to drive in her cautious eighties, alas).   She kept records of her generous donations to the church:  $20 a week.  And there was a very well-written letter from a retired priest, who had gone to Fordham.  My goodness!  If all priests were that well-educated!

There were wedding invitations and announcements of graduations.  I was very envious of a wedding invitation in the form of a booklet, with long quotes from the bride, groom, and their friends about where and how they met.

But most touching was the fact that Mom kept her “Iowans for Hillary Caucus Kit” from 2008.  And now the caucuses are coming up again!


                 2008 “Iowans for Hillary Caucus Kit”

My mother loved Hillary!  She was mad about two political families:  the Clintons and the Kennedys.  Although the Clintons were less glamorous (and not Catholic!), she followed Hillary’s career with the sharp eyes trained by a bachelor’s degree in political science. She was impressed by Hillary’s record on health care, the economy, and her criticism of the War in Iraq.   For one of my birthdays Mom gave  me Hillary’s memoir, because she thought “it was important.” I will never dare to weed it!

I feel, eerily, that this Hillary kit is from my mom.  Coincidence?  Well…  At the caucuses, there  is milling and thronging,  sitting idly on bleachers or folding chairs, people arguing and switching sides (if their candidate is not viable, i.e., has too few supporters), and finally, many hours later, a  head count. County by county they are added up. The results determine the “win, show, place” positions of candidates and  the number of delegates for each candidate.

Anyway, I shall TRY to go.  Though my mother didn’t like the caucuses, either. But one vote can make a difference.  We saw that with the whole Howard Dean thing in 2004.

Here is an excerpt from a letter from Hillary in the 2008 kit.   It does make me want to caucus!

Everyone agrees the race in Iowa is close and could be determined by a handful of supporters.  If just one in three on my supporters stays at home, I will not be successful here in Iowa.  But if you and all the  other Iowa Democrats who support my candidacy participate on caucus night, we can take a giant step toward securing the Democratic nomination and winning this election….

And below is another side of the brochure in the 2008 Hillary caucus kit:


See, I don’t need a current Hillary Caucus Kit!

Recyclers’ Guilt: How Do You Get Rid of Your Diaries?

"Bacchante" by Leighton

“Bacchante” by Leighton

I have always been a rumpled, indifferent housewife.  Now I have become the frenzied bacchante of decluttering.

“Hire a maid now so you can ask for help later when you need it,” my cousin suggested.   She has a maid come in once a week.  I always feel comfortable in her very clean house.

I started cleaning so I could hire a maid. Then, in theory. the maid comes in and does “deep cleaning.”

But once I started cleaning, I realized I could BE the maid. Might as well do it yourself.  Once you get started, it’s kind of fun.

Vacuuming, scrubbing the floor, cleaning the toilet:  nothing is harder than throwing out things.  Our basement is full of  junk we’ve kept because of  recyclers’ guilt.  Today I stumbled across a box of ancient vacuum cleaner attachments.  Good God, why?  I guess we were hoping the city would one day include them in their recyling program.

But mostly our mess is paper.

Sort the mail.  Neaten piles of magazines. Stick in recycling bin.   Put books back on shelves.  A big part of tidying here.

We are inundated with newspapers, catalogues, and, now, brochures from Hillary and Bernie (the caucuses are next month).  The worst paper clutter culprits are The New Yorkers.  They sit on a table in the living room for months, because my husband cannot bear to part with them. Some of them wander into the kitchen at breakfast.  I read them at breakfast myself.  He says he will sort them, but I end up holding each issue one by one in front of him until he assents.  Today I picked up the pile and dumped it in the recycling bin.  I left him three issues.   And he didn’t notice the rest were missing. He chatted about an article by Louis Menand on War and Peace. (I’d already read it online.)

But here is my biggest problem.  How do you get rid of your diaries? Open burning is against the law because of of toxic emissions into the air.  I kept a journal for fifteen years.  I wrote when I was unhappy.  And very dreary they are. I can imagine bored recyclers sitting around reading them.

While you solve my problem for me, I will share the one really amusing entry I wrote on a bike trip the summer I was  30.


Pedal and eat, eat and pedal.  I feel like some wacky scifi heroine welded to her  buzzy, zingy, creaky Schwinn machine.  It’s 4:00.  I’m binging on frosted molasses cookies picked up at a sleazy supermarket on a piece of highway called Bristol.

Cookie No. 4.  My husband had to ride back to the ranger’s station to tell him our site number.

Today I was extremely inattentive, a pedaling zombie. The road was boringly familiar from last week’s jaunt but my sleeping bag kept slipping off the back of the bike, DH’s brakes kept rubbing against the tire, and a million other mishaps.

Ate at Wendy’s in M,  A slow Wendy’s.  An Amish couple and a guy with a couple of tattoos who looked  like a regular civilian.

A lot of dead frogs on the road. Yuck. Squishy little varmints.


I hadn’t thought of that in years.

Decluttering, Margaret Kennedy’s The Forgotten Smile, & A Giveaway

Carrie Snodgrass in "Diary of a Mad Housewife"

Carrie Snodgrass in “Diary of a Mad Housewife” is weary of decluttering.

I am not really a decluttering person.

Except now I am.

Number of bookcases:  17.  Number of boxes with books:  20.  Number of books on the floor: 100 (before this weekend).

And so, even though I have not yet read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, I set to work.

When I declutter, I don’t mess around.  FIRST, GET RID OF THE FURNITURE.  Not all of it.   But only the cat ever liked the broken chest of drawers in the bedroom.

One of the drawers was devoted to single socks.  Yes.  A whole drawer-full.  Did I think the sock-mates would come back from the dryer and jump into the drawer?

I threw them all in the trash.  Perhaps there is a single-sock recycling center in a Third World country where all the yarn is unraveled and reknitted, but I do not know of it.

Then there was the drawer of the tiny threadbare L. L. Bean turtlenecks and t-shirts that I have kept in case I  lose weight someday.  It’s been ten years… So valete!

And the bedroom now looks spacious. We have piled the boxes neatly in the corner, and there is still a lot of room.

Then I got right down to weeding books.  My goal is to have only 17 bookcases! No books on the floor ever.  So I weeded:  I got rid of all the SF (except John Wyndham) and mysteries (except Dorothy Sayers).  I also discarded several excellent novels  I will never reread.  They are the kind of books I deem library reads, though unfortunately my library doesn’t have them.

GIVEAWAY:  If you would like my copy of Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William (Virago:  I wrote about it here), Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (Virago; I wrote about it here),  or Margaret Kennedy’s The Forgotten Smile (Vintage:  below), write me at

The forgotten smile margaret kennedy 51kakyDgaSLAll right, now on to Margaret Kennedy’s The Forgotten Smile.

I have enjoyed several books by the English novelist, Margaret Kennedy (1896 – 1967), reissued by Virago in the ’80s:  my favorite is Together and Apart, one of the most stunning novels about divorce I have ever read.

She is an intelligent middlebrow writer of domestic comedies. She is an elegant writer, though her books tend to be unevenly plotted and structured.  I recently read The Forgotten Smile,  first published in 1961 and reissued by Vintage Classics in 2014.    I bought it because of the attractive cover, always a wholesome influence on us readers!

Kennedy is a mistress of comedy. The first chapter opens  in Greece, with a humorous encounter between Selwyn Potter, a former editor, artist, and brilliant classicist, and a smug, nasty eccentric classics professor, Dr. Percival Challoner.  At first Dr. Challoner does not recognize Potter as his former student: he is one of those annoying academics who doesn’t notice people and cannot enjoy anything out of his narrow area of expertise.  He is standing in front of the sculpture of a griffin.  When he says the griffin looks familiar, Selwyn suggests he might have seen one in a contemporary art gallery. (Actually, the griffin looks just like Dr. Challoner.)

Dr. Challon congratulates himself on not knowing art.  He disapproves of art.

This was another penny for the slot and it drew from Dr. Challoner a smug assertion that he knew nothing whatever about contemporary art.  He had always taken a kind of pride in confessing total ignorance of any subject save one:  upon late ancient Greek he claimed to be an absolute authority; and this claim was, it seemed, partially based on a determination to know nothing whatever about anything else.

Very funny and believable!

Dr. Challoner is there for a reason:  he has inherited a house on a tiny Greek island, Keritha. Since he knows no modern Greek,  Selwyn acts as interpreter and accompanies him on the  boat to the island.  Once there, they discover that the island is very primitive, aside from the fact that the islanders have discovered Coca-Cola.   But the elegant house, occupied for years by two siblings, Freddie and Edith Challoner, is beautiful and huge:  it is known on the island as “Freddie’s palace.” Freddie was not only benevolent and a lover of poetry, he was also the unofficial governor of the island, who discouraged tourists and protected ancient Greek culture .  Naturally, Dr. Challoner is horrified by the islanders’ belief in the gods.  He hates magic and, frankly, mistrusts the stuff of the Greek poetry he reads and lectures on.  For him, that is just on the page.

Just as Selwyn is Dr. Challoner’s interpreter, Kate Benson, an Englishwoman, becomes their interpreter of the island culture.  The reserved Kate left her family in England to spend time with the Challoners:  she took care of Edith when she was very ill with diabetes. After Freddie died, she stayed on to welcome Dr. Challoner.

It is a shock to both Kate and Selwyn to discover they have met before. (Another coincidental meeting.)  As an undergraduate, Selwyn once attended a  party at her house :  he broke a table.  Kate is not eager to know him, thinking of the big man as a bull in a china shop, but they have more in common than they think t.  Selwyn, an orphan, has always thought of her as an ideal mother .  His  wife used to ask him when the children misbehaved, “What would Mrs. Benson do?” Kate is touched by his simple liking for her.

Kate is by far the most interesting character. Does Kennedy write better about women?  Kate has temporarily left her family.  Her lawyer husband may or may not be having an affair with a rich client, Pamela, but he is certainly indifferent to Kate.

Downright infidelity in Douglas she could have forgiven and understood. Had Pamela been his mistress there might have been more sense in it.  With mere sentimental philandering she had no patience. Sherry, sighs, lingering looks, expressive silences, and flattering attention were all any man ever got from Pamela.

When  she discovers that, behind her back, her son Andrew has been scheming with Pamela to land a new job and move into her elegant home, Kate is furious.  She is determined to defy them all by leaving on a very disorganized Aegean cruise that prides itself on not having  tour guides.  While traveling, she receives some extremely cruel letters from her children and husband, harping on her shortcomings. When the boat stopsont the island of Keritha, she coincidentally runs into her childhood friends, Freddie and Edith.  They were outcasts in England, but are aristocrats on Keritha.  And the island is so lovely there that she stays.  The Challoners say there is no such thing as coincidence.  She was meant to come.

A good thing she stays, too, because almost everybody on the cruise dies.  Kennedy has a mordant sense of humor.

Much of this book does depend on coincidences, but it is not always clear what line Kennedy takes.  Death (Charon the ferryman, who charges an obol for the boat ride) technically brings both Dr. Challoner and Selwyn to the island. Dr. Challoner is the heir of his more liberal, artistic relatives, and Selwyn is mourning the death of his beautiful wife.  The story of his romance with a well-educated ex-debutante  is almost incredible both to him and to Kate.  But Kate realizes they had been blissfully happy. Too happy for the gods tolerate.  Clearly the island of Keritha operates on more than a literal level in this novel.  Free of tourists and commerce, it guides Kate and Selwyn.

Kate, too, has come back from the dead:  she was presumed dead by her family in England because her letters went astray and many died on the cruise.  . And her husband and children having divided her goods and sold her house, had no place for her.  They encouraged her to go back to the island.

This is a graceful, richly-colored novel, though the multiple story lines are not  always quite in sync.   Kennedy tries to do too much, alternating in time and space between England and Greece. We get to know quite a lot about Kate’s horrible family, who take her for granted and consider her a bored housewife, and  Freddy and Edith Challoner, with their gift of living in the present.  Then there is the thread to the hidden Greek island. How we’d love to go to there!  But it may be in danger , because of Dr. Challoner’s fear of the gods.  He wants to bring in someone who will dig up artefacts and denounce the island’s heritage.  He’s a classicist, but one who hates Greek culture.  How strange!

I’m sure a reread would make this clearer!

It is a very good read, with parts that are above “good read “status.”

It is one of my giveaway books, so if you want it let me know.

A Short, Perfect Novel: Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William

sweet william bainbridge 9780807608166-uk-300

I am always on the lookout for a short, perfect book.  Books have grown 25% longer since 1999, according to a study by James Finlayson of Vervesearch. Yet some of the best books of the twentieth and twenty-first century are short, beautifully-crafted, and brilliant.

I have recently been reading Beryl Bainbridge, known for her brief, strange, graceful novels. She was shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize.  A  posthumous Man Booker Best of Beryl Prize was awarded to her novel, Master Georgie, in 2011.

I have always been a fan of English women’s novels, but must admit I did not care for Bainbridge when I first came upon her work in the ’80s.   I considered her 1984 novel, Watson’s Apology,  a dud:  the story of a Victorian clergyman’s murder of his wife, based on an actual case, had no appeal for me.

But try, try again.  I have pulled some of her other books off the shelves.

I recently very much enjoyed and admired her wicked, witty 1975 novel, Sweet William, notable for its pared-down prose and spiky realism.   Bainbridge’s edgy brevity perfectly matches the desperate comedy of the passive heroine’s life.  In the opening chapter, we meet Ann at the airport, saying good-bye to her fiance, who has accepted a job at an American university. Ann is upset.

Suddenly the girl’s face, reflected in the chrome surface of the tobacco machine, changed expression. Clownishly, her mouth turned down at the corners.

“You should have taken me with you,” she said. “You should have done.”

Beryl Bainbridge

      Beryl Bainbridge

He says he’ll send for her “very soon.”  Ann mopes.  She lives in Hampstead and has a job at the BBC, but she is not very clever. She is never in charge.  She capitulates to the will of others.

Ann’s life alone in London is trying.   Her visiting mother, furious that Ann had sex with Gerald in the flat while she was there,  cuts the visit short and storms out of the flat.   Her landlady, a potter, Mrs. Kershaw, comforts Ann, but also takes advantage of her: she asks Ann to go in her place to a Harvest Festival religious service at her children’s school the next day. Ann’s reasons for assent are comically interwoven with a recital of her own plans to clean the house.  I love the domestic comedy.

Ann couldn’t refuse her.  Mrs. Kershaw never said a word about people coming to stay–not like some landladies–and she must have known that sometimes Gerald had stayed all night.  It was a nuisance, though, having to put off all the jobs she’d intended doing:  there were the sheets to collect from the laundry, the smears of soap and dried-up toothpaste to be removed from the glass shelf in the bathroom, the cooker to clean–Ann had meant to take the whole thing apart and scrub round the gas jets.

Sweet william bainbridge virago isbn9781405513692-1x2aThe next day, at the Harvest Festival service,  William, an attractive Scottish playwright, hits on her.   At first she thinks he has mistaken her for someone else.  No, he just loves women.   And he insists on sending a TV to her flat so she can watch him interviewed on a talk show.  They fall passionately in love.   Ann knows he has an ex-wife and children, whom he frequently visits. What she doesn’t know is that he is remarried, and cheating on his wife and Ann with other women, including her cousin Pamela.

Why doesn’t she get rid of William?  Poor Ann.  She gets pregnant. She moves into a flat with him.   She is mesmerized by him, even to the point of agreeing to a home birth.  But when he continues to cheat, she moves back to Mrs. Kershaw’s flat.

In the introduction to the Virago edition, Alex Clark quotes a Paris Review interview with Bainbridge:

When I started writing in the 1960s, wasn’t it the time when women were starting to write about girls having abortions and single mothers living in Hampstead and having a dreadful time?  Well, I’m not going to do that; I’m not bothering with all that rubbish.

But Clark comments,

She did bother with ‘all that rubbish’, but only sort of:  Sweet William’s Ann, who has fled the claustrophobic family home in Brighton to begin a career at the BBC, does live in Hampstead; her cousin, Pamela, does have an abortion; Ann herself does become a single mother.

I admit, I do like a good women’s “Hampstead novel.” But I prefer the intelligent, likable characters  in my favorite ’60s and ’70s novels by Margaret Drabble and Lynn Reid Banks.  We know the Anns exist, but we become impatient with them. And that makes it harder to like Sweet William.