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!