Booker Xenophobia: Timing, Timing & More Bad Timing

Posh Brit writers want Americans banned from Booker!

Some Brit writers want to bar Americans from Booker Prize.

A month after the African-American writer Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sellout, the excellent writer Julian Barnes  has said Americans should not be eligible for the prize.

Was it the Latin errors?  No, that is my thing.

The Brits want Americans out!  According to the  Telegraph, Barnes, who won the Booker in 2011, said, “The Americans have got enough prizes of their own. The idea of  being Britain, Ireland, the old Commonwealth countries and new voices in English from around the world gave it a particular character and meant it could bring on writers.”

Oh, dear–the Commonwealth!

He added, “If you also include Americans – and get a couple of heavy hitters – then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.”

Well, the Canadians  have prizes, too.  This year’s Booker-shortlisted Canadian writer, Madeleine Thien, won two:  the Governor General’s Award the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Mind you, I am an Anglophile and have read most of the Booker winners.

By all means, give the Booker to the Brits! Who cares?

But what bad timing!  To protest after the first American winner is black.

Rallying round Barnes are other white Writers of a Certain Age, A. S. Byatt, winner of the Booker for her great novel Possession, novelist Susan Hill, who was a judge on the 2011 panel,  Peter Carey,  winner of the Booker for True History of the Kelly Gang, Booker-longlisted Philip Hensher and Amanda Craig, a novelist I’ve never heard of, so I can’t connect her to the Booker.

It’s the year of Brexit and Trump:  the timing couldn’t be worse.

Didn’t I tell you I detected anti-American feeling in London?

Influences on a Common Reader: Where I Find New Books & Why I Read Them


Published in 2013, this is one of my favorite books of the year.

Must I keep up with the latest books?

You should see my book journal: fifth century B.C., first century B.C., first century A.D., Renaissance, 19th century, and many from the 20th century.  But, much to my surprise, I have read 24 new books this year.  And by new, I mean anything since 2010!

This is a post about how I found out about the books and why I read them.  Oh, and I’ve added ridiculous personal star ratings (1-5 stars) to rank  my enjoyment,  as opposed to pure critical judgment (which ratings sometimes coincide, but not always).

TOP REASON FOR READING NEW BOOKS:  FANDOM.  In other words, I already like the authors.

1. Charles Palliser’s Rustication.  I loved The Quincunx, and oddly this is the first of his books I’ve picked up since then.  It’s Gothic, it’s eerie, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t post about it here, so you’ll have to look up the reviews.

On my personal, not critical, scale:  ***

2. Gail Godwin’s Flora.  Loved it, but didn’t write about it!  The story of a life-changing summer.  Precocious 10-year-old Helen, mourning the death of the grandmother who raised her, must resign herself to a babysitter, her  mother’s bubbly cousin Flora, a 22-year-old college graduate looking for a teaching job.  Flora’s father, a school principal, is away for the summer doing  secret war work in Oak Ridge.  There are many twists and turns as Helen’s contempt and jealousy of the generous Flora darkly grows and has consequences.

Star rating:  *****

3 Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret.  Mason is always stunning, and this is one of her best.  Based on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences, it is the story of Marshall Stone, a World War II veteran and retired  airline pilot who  goes to Belgium and then Paris to search for the members of the Resistance who risked their lives to save him after the crash of his B-17 bomber in Belgium.  I posted about it here.

Star rating:  *****

4. D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918.  In his  compelling new history of a century of writing, brokering, publishing, marketing, reviewing, shaping of taste, and selling of books in England he asks the questions, “What is ‘literary culture’? And what is ‘taste’?”     I posted my reactions here.

Star rating:  *****

5. Jo Walton’s The Just City  In this brilliant, if very strange, philosophical novel, the first of a trilogy, the bookish Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, decides to found a city based on Plato’s Republic. Her brother, Apollo, bemused by the nymph Daphne’s dramatic rejection of his sexual advances (she prayed to Artemis for help and was turned into a tree), decides to participate in the experiment, because he, too, has read Plato, and he wants to be reborn as a mortal to understand the human condition.  You can read the rest of the post here. 

Star rating:  *****

6.  Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.  This strange urban fantasy, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and on an island on Puget Sound, is about climate change. He portrays a magical spring and summer, caused by a divine contretemps between Persephone and Hades. Persephone has left her husband Hades, is hiding out in Seattle, and is working as a waitress. As you can imagine, both Hades and her mother Demeter are searching for her.  The lives of the human protagonists change because of their interactions with the gods.  You can read my post here.

7.  Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days. This is the third of a trilogy about a New York couple, Russell and Corinne Calloway. Russell and Corinne were deeply shaken in the second book, The Good Life, by the trauma of 9/11, and have tried to be their best selves since. Now they are at a crossroads in their marriage and work: Russell, known for publishing literary fiction, toys with the idea of buying a commercial blockbuster because of financial problems, and Corinne, a former stockbroker coming to terms with middle age, now manages a massive food bank that distributes vegetables and fruit to the poor and thinks he should stick to his ideals.  At 50, they are having a midlife crisis about where to live and what to do.  Should Corinne leave Russell for the filthy rich guy she had an affair with after 9/11?  Will the Russells continue to summer in the Hamptons?  I can mock the rich, but I enjoyed this book.   You can read my post here.

Star rating:  ****

8.  Peter  Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.  Stothard, the  former editor of the Times Literary Supplement (he retired this year) and The London Times, is an Oxford-educated classicist who has written two other brilliant books, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra and On the Spartacus Road. I come to this book through my love of classics, but many will be drawn to the history and politics. In this gracefully-written memoir, he recounts his fascination with Nero and Seneca and Nero’s court, especially to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s tutor and political advisor. As a deputy editor at the London Times, Stothard met often with Thatcher’s four main advisors, who gave him background for The Times’ political articles. And they shared his interest in Seneca regularly. He organized a Latin class for the four advisors at a pub and reviewed/taught conjugations and declensions and read and discussed Seneca.  I wrote about it here and here.

Star rating:  *****

9.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books.  In this intelligent, charming little book, Lahiri writes about book covers as the clothing of book.  She looks at the role of the book cover in representing ideas  and selling the book and the negligible role of the author in choosing the design. Written in Italian as the keynote speech for the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, The Clothing of Books was translated into English by her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.  I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  *****

10.  Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, 2029-2047.  In Lionel Shriver’s clever, witty dystopian novel, water is a luxury. There is no water in the West and there is a shortage in New York.  The Mandibles have always been rich: their fortune was built, ironically, on diesel engines (obviously a contributing factor to the pollution in 2029). But this book is really about money: what happens when the economy tanks in 2029 after the dollar is declared worthless in the global economy? Four generations of the Mandibles are affected, and  it’s not pretty.  But it’s not zombies and apocalypse:  there is hope.   I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  ****


1. Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton I was inspired to read this by Sarah Lyall’s excellent interview with Strout in The New York Times.  A lyrical novel about a daughter’s reconciliation with her mother.    I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  *****

2. Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers.  I was inspired to read this by Michiko Kakutani, who liked this light summer book.  Alas, it is the worst book I read all  year.   I won’t bother to link you to my post.

Star rating:  no stars.

3. Emma Cline’s The Girls.  I was inspired to read this by the many, many enthusiastic American reviews.  (In the UK they don’t quite get it, judging from reviews.)   If you loved Donna Tartt’s eerie first novel, The Secret History, you will enjoy this.  Told from the point of view of Evie Boyd, a middle-aged woman who at 14 was involved with a Manson-like cult in the Bay area, the narrative shifts back and forth between Evie’s present as an unemployed home aide house-sitting for a friend and her memories of the summer of 1969 when she was a lonely upper-class adolescent with a crush on Suzanne, one of the cult leader Russell’s girls. Evie did not kill anyone, but she is haunted by her memories. You can read my post  here.

Star rating:  *****

4. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.  I was inspired by many, many enthusiastic reviews.  Loved it.  Narrated mostly in the first person, partly in the third person, and partly in an elliptical graphic memoir, it is witty, brilliant, alternately grumpy and effervescent. The heroine, Eleanor Flood, a former director of animation on a cartoon show in New York, is too sharp and introspective to fit in seamlessly as a Seattle housewife and stay-at-home mom. In laid-back, quirky, politically correct Seattle, she is neither the perfect wife to Joe, a hand surgeon, nor the perfect mother to eight-year-old Timby, and she never works on the graphic memoir she has a contract for.  She makes resolutions to be kind and generous to her family for one day, but soon everything spirals out of control.  You can read my post here.

Star rating:  *****

5. Charles Bock’s Alice & Oliver.  Source:  a review from Bookpage, a PR book review publication.  Based partly on his notes on Bock’s own notes on his wife’s hospitalizations and  death from cancer, it is the story of a young couple’s struggles after Alice is diagnosed with cancer and Oliver must figure out her care as well as take care of their baby.  Very, very shockingly realistic and sad.

Star rating:  ***


1. Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblan.  Longlisted for the National Book Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize.  Very quirky, charming, and philosophical.  I never got around to blogging about it, but I loved it!

Star rating:  *****

2. David Mean’s Hystopia.  Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.   Means has constructed a novel within a novel about an alternate 1960s.  Kennedy has survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term as president, but his wave-by tours in an open car attract other would-be assassins. Vietnam veterans are shipped to Michigan to be treated by the Psych Corps established by Kennedy to treat mental illness in general but especially to deal with the problem of returning Vietnam vets. The treatment, known as “enfolding,” combines a dose of a drug called Tripizoid with a reenactment of the traumatic events by actual actors, which results in “enfolding” the memories, i.e., amnesia about their tours of duty. But the drug doesn’t work on everyone, and psychotic vets are terrorizing Michigan, which is burning as a result of fires started in Detroit and Flint during riots.  Really loopy lyrical comical prose.  Loved it, but didn’t expect it to win, because it’s meta-fiction and science fiction!  My post is here. 

Star rating:  *****

3. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love.  Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize. A fascinating novel about the competition in the art world to acquire a lost painting by Watteau, “The Improbability of Love.” The details about establishing the provenance of art is slightly reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Possession.  My post is here.

Star rating:  ****

4.  André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last year. A witty, poignant novel about  talking dogs and a bet between Apollo and Hermes.  My post is here.

Star rating:  *****


1. Natasha Stagg’s Surveys. This small-press book was an Emily Books selection (0nline bookstore/book club).  My post is here.

Star rating:  *****

2. Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing.  An Amazon recommendation.  My post is here.

Star rating:  ***

3. Allison Winn Scotch’s In Twenty Years. Found it at Amazon and it is published by an Amazon imprint. This very enjoyable light nvoel centers on the midlife crises of a group of old college friends–and, coincidentally, one of the group members in each book is a rock star.  I posted about it here.

Star rating:  ****

3.  Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better (Star rating:  ***) & Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (Star rating:  ****).  Both are  published by Europa Editions.  My posts are here and here.

And so that’s how I find out about new books!

Literary Fantasy Parcel, # 2: Metamorphoses


I’m almost finished with the holiday gift fuss.  I’m  assembling book parcels, tied up with a ribbon and tucked into  cotton bookstore bags.  Every year I organize my book parcels by theme, hoping a stack of themed books will entice readers.   I am happy if my friends read one or two of the two-to-three books in the parcel.  (See yesterday’s post.)

This year’s theme is “Literary Fantasy.”  Why?  It has been a strange year. Reading fantastic literature teaches us about our conscious and unconscious selves, and can make us see our world differently.   We are still mourning the election, and our society doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction.  And so let’s read some fantasy.

Literary Parcel, # 2:  Metamorphosis

Woolf penguin Orlando+cover1. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors. And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando, is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet. He lives for more than three centuries, first as a man and then as a woman.  There’s too much whimsy in this fantasy for my taste, but Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, especially her description of a Renaissance winter festival on the frozen Thames. You can read my post on Orlando here.

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s epic poem, a collection of Greek and Roman myths linked by the theme of metamorphosis, is the most brilliant fantastic comedy I have ever read.  As Ovid describes the clash between gods and ovid-metamorphoses-folio-mtsgoddesses, and their bizarre obliviousness and frequent violence toward human beings, we begin to understand our own reality and, beyond that, change and entropy.  We witness the extent of Ovid’s joyousness in his mythic exploration of metamorphosis in an imperfect world.  His style  is bubbly and elegant at the same time. His  descriptions of nature are charming and lovely, and his characters jump out of his vivid verbal sketches. There is much absurdity in Ovid:  Apollo, struck by Cupid’s arros, falls in love with the  nymph Daphne and asks her  to run a little slower so he can catch  her, but she prefers to turn into a tree than “marry” him, because she is a virgin dedicated to the goddess Diana.  At the same time as we laugh at Apollo, we imagine the nymph Daphne’s terror as she prays to her father, who tries to persuade her Apollo would be a good match.  In the end she turns into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.  So she gets away, but does she?

Here is an excerpt from Apollo’s comic complaint to Daphne

…But I, who follow,
Am not a foe at all. Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries


humphries-ovid_meta1Like Apollo, many of the gods are bullies and even rapists, but the goddesses can be equally violent: in the moving story of Ceres and Proserpina, Ceres punishes the world with drought as she searches the earth for her lost daughter.  She turns an insolent boy into an owl to vent her rage at a rude remark. Finally she learns that Hades, king of the Underworld, abducted Proserpina. Ceres appeals to Jove, who is Proserpina’s father, but he believes Hades is a good match for her.  Ceres brokers a deal whereby Proserpina lives half the year above ground (and that’s how we get spring and summer).

As Woolf in Orlando, Ovid is also fascinated by the blurring of gender and the sexes. The story of Tiresias is short and strange:  he sees two serpents mating and strikes them apart and then is turned into a woman for seven eyars; seven years later he sees them again and does the same thing so he can turn back into a man.  It does not end well:  Jove and Juno have argued about who has more sexual pleasure, men or women, and Tiresias says women do.  Juno, furious that he disagreed with her, blinds him as a punishment, but Jove tries to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy. Some compensation, some of us would think.

Ovid understands the randomness of fate. A lucky, lucky reader will get this in her Christmas parcel.

The Passion of New Eve angela carter 51BAQglKXzL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_3. Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve.  At the British Library, I saw the manuscript of Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve in a display case, and decided I wanted to read it.  A few blocks away at Skoob, a used bookstore, I found a copy.  I cannot pretend it is my favorite book by Carter, but it does fit in well with Orlando and Ovid.

In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium. In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.

This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman. (Naturally, being a woman was best.) Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.

You can read the rest of this post here.

Literary Fantasy Parcel, #1: Books for Bohemians


Literary Fantasy Parcel, # 1

It is Small Business Saturday, or Civilized Saturday, as some call it. In past years Obama has shopped at an independent bookstore to buy Christmas presents.

I am fascinated by his bookstore trips, because I used to live in D.C.  I loved Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe at Dupont Circle.  The book selection was superb and I would have loved to quit my professional job and work there, except the low wages would have meant sharing a house with half a dozen strangers in Rockville, Maryland, which was my idea of a nightmare.  (It’s the Rockville of the R.E.M. song, “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”)

Obama sent a cabinet member shopping today:  very disappointing.  Although I didn’t go shopping myself (that will be later), I planned the gift parcels of two-to-three books I like to give my bohemian friends.  I put together a “theme” parcel and package it in canvas or cotton bookstore bags.  (I have two Skoob bags, a Waterstones bag, a Prairie Lights bag, and two Barnes & Noble bags, so I’m ready to go).

This year my theme is LITERARY FANTASY.  And so I have put together some very odd artsy books, all of which are slightly bohemian.


These are not traditional fantasy novels:  Barbara Comyns is a literary writer, published by Dorothy, Virago, and NYRB, Stella Benson is literary and weird beyond, and John Crowley is highly acclaimed both in the SF/fantasy community and by critics.  I first learned about his books from the critic Michael Dirda.

who-was-changed-and-who-was-dead-comyns-97809844693141. Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed (Dorothy, a Publishing Project).  Comyns is one of my favorite writers:  I recently posted about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths here.  Born in 1909 in England, she went to art school, became a novelist and a painter, and did various odd jobs to support her painter husband and two children (she was an antique dealer and apartment renovator, among other occupations).

Each of her beautifully-written novels is lyrical and pitch-perfect.  Fans of her charming novel,  Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, the story of a young woman married to a painter and their trials and tribulations after she has children, may be puzzled by  the strange, unpredictable, fantasy/fable, Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed.

This strange, dreamy novel begins with a flood:

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.  The weight of the water had forced the window open; so the ducks swam in.  Round the floor they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful novel that came in the night.

Gorgeous, poetic  sentence follows gorgeous, poetic sentence. I could read Comyns forever just for her word choices.  Her elegant fantasy is set in the ordinary life of an upper-middle-class family. Floods are a fact of life for the Willoweed family, who row a boat through the water and see a squealing pig, drowned peacocks, and a white beehive with the bees still buzzing around.    Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, still hopes to find a dead body in the flood.  Like all journalists, he is curious and thinks in terms of stories. Fired after a libel case, he returned 10 years ago to the country with his three children, Emma, Dennis, and Hattie (who is black: Ebyn can’t figure out where his late wife found a black lover).  Their house is owned by Grandmother Willoweed, who is truly the grandmother from hell.  Emma looks after the younger children:  she daydreams by the river while they play with paper boats and run through the woods.  And the maids, Norah and Eunice, also have a close sibling relationship, but these sisters are often verbally abused by Grandmother Willoweed.  They  find love on their days off.

The flood is nothing, however, compared to the plague of madness that soon strikes human beings in the village.  What doom will strike whom next?  In this rapt fairy tale about life, death, coming of age, love, ambition, and betrayal, nothing is what it seems.

this-is-the-end-benson-221511182.  Stella Benson’s This Is the End (Michael Walmer).  About a decade ago, I accidentally discovered Stella Benson’s Living Alone at Project Gutenberg.   I fell in love with this strange World War I fantasy,  in which a middle-class conventional woman’s life is changed by a witch who runs a boarding house for people who want to live alone.

I recently discovered that two of Benson’s novels have been reissued in paperback by the Australian publisher Michael Walmer (and are available in the U.S.). I loved This Is the End, her second novel, published in 1917.  Benson is a peculiar writer, with a gift for whimsy and enchanting questing characters.  If her prose isn’t consistently elegant,  she wins you over with her originality and clever blend of fantasy and philosophy.

In this strange little novel, set in World War I,  the quixotic heroine, Jay, has run away from her middle-class home to work as a bus conductor in London. She doesn’t feel it’s fair to be comfortable during th war when so many are poor. When her brother Kew, a soldier on leave, tracks her down, he is dismayed to find her working in a uniform.  Her  letters to her stepmother, Mrs. Gustus,  a writer of popular sentimental novels , are fantastic invented fantasies of  living in a house by the sea.  In her real life, she spends her free time in this fantasy world where she has a Secret Friend.

Mrs. Gustus tells Kew and their visitor Mr. Russell  that she has a letter from Jay with a clue.  They must drive along the coast to find her house in Mr. Russell’s car, Christina.

Jay and Kew are orphans and understand Mrs. Gustus, whom they call Anonyma, well.

Mrs. Gustus had no gift of intimacy.  She was reserved about everything except herself, or what she believed to be herself.  The self that she shared so generously with others was, however, not founded on fact, but modelled on the heroine of all her books. She killed her heroine whenever possible–I think she only once married her,–and yet still the character remained immortal in everything that did not seem artistic.  Her notebook was a tangle of self-deceptions.  The rest of the Family knew this.  They never pretended to believe her.

It is entertaining, very strange, riddled with verse, sometimes beautiful, occasionally clumsy, and there is tragedy as well as comedy.  Is it ever right to give up our dreams?

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary:  “A curious feeling, when a writer like Stella Benson dies, that one’s response is diminished.  Here and now won’t be lit up by her:  it’s life lessened.”

A peculiar book!

little-big-crowley-c3fc1ada18b22bc1610dd0b852173ce53. Little, Big by John Crowley, winner of the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the World Fantasy Award.  I am an enormous fan of his Aegypt tetralogy.  I have not read Little, Big , but find it is always good to include one book you haven’t read in a parcel.  Here is the description at Goodreads.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

Hope you’re all having a good Thanksgiving weekend!  I am, except that I ruined the turkey (long story), and my husband had to buy some at the deli at the Hy-Vee.

Post-Traumatic Best Book List Syndrome, or If I Don’t Know You, I Don’t Care What You Recommend!

Catching up on the 2015 list!

I enjoy Best Books of the Year lists.

But how many did I read from the Best of 2015 lists?  One-third of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.  The one I intend to read is Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl, a novel about George Eliot.

Though my own taste is usually for older books and classics, I do read the lists over the holidays. And I am already agog  and overwhelmed by lists, as I flap through newspapers, skim the Dover catalogue, and scroll own the online Best of lists before giving up and heading to the mall.

Mind you, I’m banned from the 100 Notable Books list at The New York Times because I already read my 10 free articles, err, forty free (I read 30 more on various e-devices) during the election.  I’m waiting for the daily critics to post their lists in December.  I recognize and respect the unique voices of Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner.

I also recommend The Washington Post book list, though at first it looked tame and  predictable.  That’s because only the top of the page had loaded, and it took forever.  Scroll down…keep scrolling…scroll some more… then wait… and eventually the entire article appears, with links by genre to other recommendations.

By the time  I got to the TLS  Books of the Year list,  I was struck by hilarity and what I call “If I Don’t Know Who You Are, I Don’t Care What You Recommend” syndrome.  I rather think this is my brain on pumpkin pie.

One reviewer (sorry, didn’t write down his/her name) called a book “an assured product of cosmopolitan high culture,” so I had to pass.   Another  recommends new translations of Homer’s Iliad, and what a good idea: he especially liked Caroline Alexander’s translation,  which I read and very much enjoyed.   Mary Beard recommends museum exhibition catalogues, her favorite being the catalogue for the British Museum exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds, edited by Franck Goddio and Aurélia Masson-Berghof, but must skip since I’m shopping for fans of Amelia Peabody and Mara Daughter of the Nile.

I  skipped over the pieces by reviewers  I didn’t know, though  perhaps I missed the best. I sometimes lingered over phrases like “surreal fantasist”and “meticulous mosaics of clustered hues”out of context.  I enjoyed the “Best of”s by  Joyce Carol Oates, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Drabble,  D. J. Taylor, William Boyd, and Michael Dirda.

And, yes, I agree with Edmund Gordon (no idea who he is) that Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is “gorgeously written.”  It’s the perfect gift for anyone. My God, if you winter in What Cheer, Iowa, or Lone Tree, you’re living in “the lonely city.”


Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”

old-fashioned-thanks-giving-alcott-penguin-s-l300 You’re ready to roast the turkey…you’ve added mushrooms, onion, and chestnuts to the Pepperidge Farm stuffing…the pies are on the counter…and then you get a phone call from your cousin, who has been committed to the mental hospital.  To riff on a phrase from Little Women, Thanksgiving won’t be Thanksgiving without her!

In Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” an unexpected  illness also disrupts Thanksgiving.

At the beginning, Mrs. Bassett is cozily preparing the feast the day before the holiday.

“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman, as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.”

And then a stranger brings bad news.  Mrs. Bassett’s mother is “failn’ fast.” She and her husband drop everything, promise the children a feast later, and take the sleigh to Gram’ma’s.

The older girls, Prue and Tillie, decide to make the dinner themselves.  They’ve seen Ma do it many times. If you’ve read Little Women, you know the cookery may be iffy.  Jo’s salt instead of sugar in the strawberries doesn’t begin to cover it.

I can’t pretend this one of Alcott’s better efforts, but she is one of our very best American writers, and I have read An Old-Fashioned Girl (my favorite), Little Women, Work (her adult Little Women), and Hospital Sketches many times. I am now breezing throuhg Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, which you can download it free on the internet.

I do wish we had cider apple-sauce at our house.

And I love Alcott’s dialogue (and occasional dialect)!

Tilly Bassett, whatever made you put wormwood and catnip in your stuffin’?” demanded Ma, trying not to be severe, for all the rest were laughing, and Tilly looked ready to cry.

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope all is well with you and your family.

Protests & Petitions

I’ve heard something like “Not My President” before.  Slogans were more direct in the ’70s:  “Impeach Nixon!”

It’s been years since I attended a protest or political rally, but the photos of then and now are similar.  These days I prefer signing petitions and sending letters to senators and representatives.  Still, I’m glad to see the protesters doing their job.

My assumption from reading the news was that the young wouldn’t step up, and, indeed, it was hard to get the Millennial vote out. In an  All Things Considered story,  “Young Voters In Pennsylvania Weigh In On Why Clinton Failed To Win State,”  a student at Lafayette College admitted he hadn’t even registered to vote. “It was more of a lazy thing, and I didn’t really like either candidates. And I should have upheld my civic duty, but I didn’t. So I kind of regret it now.”

And so we urge everybody to get ready NOW for the midterm elections. (Register to vote.)  And you might want to visit Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution website to find out what the progressives are up to or  sign this petition at to abolish the electoral college.  

Protest if and where you will. There have been peaceful protests in front of Trump Tower in New York and Chicago:  I love the photo below of bicyclists protesting at Trump Tower in Chicago.

Bicyclists protest Trump Tower in Chicago, Nov. 18

And even I may turn out for a protest on Inauguration Day.  The big one will be in Washington, D.C., but it’s a big country, and you can find one in your own town.

Some protests are taking strange forms, though, and indeed I thought a theatrical political intervention well-intentioned but inappropriate.  When vice-president-elect Pence attended Hamilton on Friday night,  the actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, addressed a few remarks directly to Pence at the end of the play. It was a lovely, short, polite statement, co-written by written by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, director, Thomas Kail, and the lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, with input from cast members.  An excerpt:

“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.  We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Who couldn’t love it?  Very sweet.  But I have my doubts:  was it necessary?  Doesn’t the play say all that better?  And then  Trump went nuts on Twitter and demanded an apology for Pence, who said he wasn’t offended and didn’t want an apology.  Thank goodness!

Trump is “not my president,” as the kids say.  I am a Bernie Sanders supporter who voted for Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote in the election.   But unless Trump goes to jail for fraud, he WILL be OUR president, so “not my president” is a technicality.  And that’s why progressives must seriously organize, figuring out how to reach all age groups with the Democratic party issues that are helpful to all classes (I still can’t believe the white male vote went for Trump!) and to find candidates who can inspire them.

At times like this we turn to Obama, who can give Trump, protesters, and everybody a few tips.

According to  Politico, Obama said at a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Thursday:

“I’ve been the subject of protests during the course of my eight years.  And I suspect that there’s not a president in our history that hasn’t been subject to these protests. So, I would not advise people who feel strongly or who are concerned about some of the issues that have been raised during the course of the campaign, I wouldn’t advise them to be silent.”


Virago Weekend: Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding & Barbara Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths


                   Hanging out on the porch in November.

It’s never fun to have strangers ripping up your walls, and when our tiny house was disrupted during a recent black mold scare, I  stayed home with the cats. We could have gone to a hotel, but the cats prefer their own environment, to the point that I rarely travel and once stayed home with them during a bomb scare.  I did not believe our neighborhood would blow up, nor did it.

The cats are fine after the black mold removal, but I am exhausted.  And so I went on a binge:  a Virago-and-Diet-Coke binge.

My addiction to Viragos started in the 1980s when an eccentric bookshop owner may or may not have been illegally selling British editions of books. My two favorite Virago writers are  among the first I read: Barbara Comyns and  Dorothy Baker.

cassandra-at-the-wedding-baker-e39765fc9b9e7d5873d6f4a9ffba9610The American writer Dorothy Baker‘s masterpiece Cassandra at the Wedding (which I wrote at length about here)  has been reissued both by Virago and NYRB.  In  this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, a suicidal graduate student, drives from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding.   Judith, a musician, plans to marry Jack, a medical student.  Only Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend the private ceremony. Cassandra has been fragile since their mother, a writer, died of cancer. She tries to talk Judith out of getting married:  she says Jack is redundant and the sisters belong together. After Judith disagrees, disaster ensues.

I wish I could say all of Baker’s books were equally wonderful, but they are not, and perhaps that’s why Virago only reissued this one.   Trio is a pulp menage a trois novel, in which a lesbian relationship is threatened by a young man’s attentions to the younger woman: it is slightly reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox.    Young Man with a Horn, reissued by NYRB,  based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, lacks the star quality of Cassandra.  I tracked down a copy of Our Gifted Son, and have attempted to read it twice.  Oh, dear, all I can say is that it’s set in Mexico.  I WANT to love her  books, but why did she write so little?  Why was only one truly great?  What on earth happened to her?

Cassandra at the wedding viragoBarbara Comyns, on the other hand, is a reliable writer.  She didn’t write one great book, but several. Her narrators are charming and original, people you’d want for your  friends, but their lives are not always happy:   they deal with abusive fathers, unfulfilling affairs and marriages, and poverty.  Sometimes there are happy endings, sometimes not.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s is one of my favorite novels.  I put it in the same class as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room.  The captivating, gentle narrator, Sophia, tells us the tragicomic story of her first marriage to a self-centered but charming artist, Charles Fairclough, whose selfishness plunges them into poverty and makes her ill.  He won’t work, they are very poor, and the description of poverty is detailed:  we feel the cold.

But they are very happy when they are engaged.   You have to read her comic prose to know how charming this is.

Charles and I were both twenty when we met, and as soon as we were twenty-one we decided to get married secretly.  There was a church next door to the house where I had a bed-sitting-room, so we went there to ask the priest to put the banns up.  We dared not ring the bell at first, we felt too shy.  Charles said they would ask us in and give us a glass of sherry and some funeral biscuits.  We stood on the doorstep rehearsing what to say and the priest must have heard us, because he suddenly opened the door though we hadn’t rung the bell.  He took one look at us with his deepset eyes and said “Banns” in a shouting kind of voice.

Then she gets pregnant, and their little boy Sandro gets some kind of milk allowance from the clinic, but Sophia and Charles don’t always eat.  When she goes back to work full-time at an artists’ studio, she has to leave Sandro with some very mean-spirited relatives of Charles. Then they have a daughter, and  Charles tells her he doesn’t want a family and they must leave.  The consequences are tragic.

And yet Sophia’s gentle, observant tone gives the narrative almost a fairy-tale atmosphere.  We cry for Sophia but she doesn’t cry for herself.  She courageously makes a new life for herself.  There is a slow transformation, after she goes off on her own.  She has to keep going.  She is that kind of person.  And she has second and third chances.


There is a happy ending.

And that is a relief after the black mold week I’ve had.

Black Mold and Books

anne-taintor-mediocre-housewife-96c747f821c900499927d681b20890f5What a dreadful week this has been!

We found black mold in our study.  Don’t worry: it won’t kill you.   That’s an urban legend. We hired someone to take care of it.

The Centers for Disease Control website explains,

There is always some mold everywhere – in the air and on many surfaces. Mold has been on the Earth for millions of years. Molds grow where there is moisture and they can flourish in damp, warm, and humid environments….

A link between other adverse health effects, such as pulmonary hemorrhage among infants, memory loss, or lethargy, and mold, including a black mold (e.g. Stachybotrys chartarum (S. chartarum)) which has been associated with heavy and constant water damage in buildings, has not been proven.

It’s not a big deal,  but it has been chaotic and depressing. We had to move our bookcases, desk, etc., into the living room, dining room, and bedrooms.  If you like the used bookstore look, this “cutting-edge” house now  belongs in Martha Stewart’s magazine.


1. Your day starts at 7 a.m. because you don’t know when they’ll arrive.   Maybe at 7:30, maybe at noon. There are phone calls. You’re tired, you don’t usually get up till 10,  you drink two cups of coffee, and then you vacuum, because every woman’s house should look like your mother’s, circa 1965.

2 Social skills.  It’s at times like this that you realize you might as well pretend you’re Holly Hunter in The Piano.  If only you had  your mother’s social skills.  She supervised all work done in the house, while chatting the whole time. How do you make friends with your work crew if you’re not chatty?    Should you give them food?   Your Melitta coffeepot makes only one cup of coffee at a time, so you can’t offer coffee to a crew. Should you have baked cookies? You mean to be nice, but  there doesn’t seem to be room for all these people in your house.

3 Your cats are freaked out.  The cats are very well-brought-up, but they’re not used to strangers.  The elderly cats disappear like the hipster doofuses they are into their “private apartments.”  The  frisky cats are shut in the basement so they don’t get in the way, because they think THE BLACK MOLD CREW is here to play with them.  (NOTE:  at the end of the day, the cats  get treats!)

4 Eventually you rush out of the house.  You need to get out.  But where? Anywhere.  The mall!  The bookstore! The coffeehouse!  But it is very boring.    Okay, at the coffeehouse you have a cappuccino and read.  Then you have a coffee and read. And then you wonder if you should have another coffee but you’re coffeed out.  And then you go to the mall and wonder if you need Snoopy sheets and a wicker cornucopia.  And do you need a Thanksgiving tablecloth? And  should you get your hair cut?

5 This goes on  for days.  Finally you don’t bother to get up till 9.  If they’re here, they can call you on their phones! Anyway, you’re always up before they arrive. Everybody is on a late schedule.   You stop vacuuming  because they’re family now. (The family you never talk to.)  If they want to vacuum, they can do it themselves!  You bang around the kitchen and don’t think about offering them your  toast. They can get it themselves.  They’re all using your bathroom, and you keep changing the towels maternally. You also squirt that special Clorox spray around and clean the sink, especially the handles!   Maybe they could clean the mold on the grout while they’re here, but then I would lose my bathroom. Finally they put back the wainscotting and repainted it.  They did a good job,  I praise their work, bye-bye, and now we just have to move all the books back.


Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books

We don’t live in a world in which a cover can simply reflect the sense and style of the book. Today more than ever the cover shoulders an additional weight. Its function is much more commercial than aesthetic. It succeeds or fails in the market.
–Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books

jhumpa-lahiri-the-clothing-of-books-9780525432753No one writes more exquisitely about the Indian-American experience than Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Since then she has written a second collection of stories, two novels, and a nonfiction book, In Other Words, about moving to Rome and writing in Italian.   She has won many awards, including a 2014 National Humanities Medal presented by President Obama.

Her short new book, The Clothing of Books, is about book covers, a subject few of us readers can resist. God knows I have bought many books for their covers, or avoided those with ugly covers.  In this intelligent, charming little book,  Lahiri looks at the role of the book cover and   the negligible role of the author in choosing the design. Written in Italian as the  keynote speech for the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, The Clothing of Books was translated into English by her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.

She writes of the book cover as the clothing of books.  She begins by musing about her own ambivalence to fashion as a girl in the U.S.   She envied the uniforms of her cousins in India, because it gave them an identity and they didn’t have to worry about what to wear. Her mother, who still wears traditional Indian clothing,  picked out the wrong American clothes for Lahiri.  They did not understand American clothing.

However simple and functional, I found my cousins’ uniforms splendid, fascinating. On the street, on buses and trams, I was struck by this visual language, thanks to which one could identify and classify thousands of students in such a large and populous city. Every uniform represented belonging to one school or another. Each of my peers in Calcutta enjoyed, to my eyes, a strong identity and, at the same time, a sort of anonymity.

For Lahiri, the cover is a bit like fashion.  Sometimes it represents her and her words well, sometimes not.  For Lahiri, the cover signifies the end of writing a book, rather than the beginning, as it does for most of us.  She writes, “It represents a collective reading by the book designer and various people at the publishing house; it matters how they see the book, what they think of it, what they want from it.”

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

Her input as a writer in the book design is minimal, and she has never talked to a designer of a cover for her book.  Sometimes the editor listens to her criticism, but they decide the design without her.

It was different for Virginia Woolf, who founded Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard.  Virginia talked to her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, about what she wanted in the design.  Bell did not necessarily read Woolf’s books first. They collaborated on the design.

Lahiri, the daughter of a librarian, misses what she calls “naked books.”  She has read many hardcover library books whose jackets were removed, because they are easily damaged in libraries. Lahir misses the days when she could read books with no summaries, autor bios,  blurbs, or other jacket copy.  (Personally I miss that smell of old book smell, from the special library binding.)

Lahiri’s fascinating new book is one of my favorites of the year.  I can’t imagine any reader not enjoying it.