The Last Giveaway of 2016: Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”


I freed up one bookcase this year by weeding books, and  hope to free up another in the new year.   My resolution is to get all books out of boxes on to shelves.  And for every book that comes into the house, one must go out.

The last giveaway of the year is of a lovely Penguin edition of Mikhail Lermontov’s charming  short novel, A Hero of Our Time  (1840). (We have three copies:  two were recently found in a box.)

I was utterly absorbed in the story of Pechorin, a  Byronic anti-hero described from three points of view:  that of a narrator/writer who takes travel notes, that of an officer who tells spellbinding stories that reveal Pechorin’s character, and finally from Pechorin’s own journal.

In the introduction, the translator Paul Foote writes,

“A Hero of Our Time” is, as the title indicates, an account of the life and character of a man who is typical of our age. In this it continues the tradition of personal studies, initiated in Russia by Pushkin’s ‘novel in verse,’ Eugene Onegin (1823-30), but with antecedents in Western European literature, in which the contemporary young man with his problems and faults is exposed.  The link between Lermontov’s work and Pushkin’s work is evident from a number of similarities…

Onegin and Pechorin are the first in a line of literary heroes characterized in nineteenth-century criticism as ‘superfluous men’ and found in the novels of Turgenev, Herzen and Goncharov that followed in the 1840s-50s.  Their common feature is that they are misfits, men who are aware that they are above the mediocrity of their society and aspire to something better.  They fail–the ‘something’ to which they aspire is too vague to become a practical goal…

If  you would like the Penguin, leave a comment.  I can send it anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.  Only postage costs keep me from sending it overseas!

My Favorite Books of 2016

Some favorite books of the year (and more below)

My husband and I started making  “Best of the year” lists in the ’90s.  We typed them up in an amateurish newsletter and mailed them to friends.  Our friends laughed at our lists and made counter-lists.   Did we really think the best book was X, the best movie Y, the best restaurant Z?  What you do then is look them in the eye and say, “WOULD WE LIE TO YOU?”  Then there is much good-humored bickering. The one thing we agreed on in 1997 was that  Ulee’s Gold was the best movie of the year.

I miss pre-internet days.  In the ’90s we had AOL and dial-up and the server was unable to reach the internet.  We read fewer publications and probably read more deeply.  Things were more personal.  We knew the people we exchanged lists with.  Now I have access to lists in book pages of newspapers around the world, online magazines, blogs, Goodreads, list-and-podcast oriented sites like Book Riot, public library websites, and more.

I must have  read at least 20 lists so far.  But the one I most look forward every year is complied by the daily New York Times critics, Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, Janet Maslin (now freelance), and Jennifer Senior.  I requested and received three books from this list for Christmas : Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (recommended by Kakutani)  and Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and  Light and Paulette Giles’ News of the World (recommended by Maslin).  This is the only list that translates into sales at my house.  Again, it’s because it doesn’t look like a shopping list.  It is published a couple of weeks after Black Friday

Well, WE DON’T NEED ANOTHERNARCISSISTIC BLOGGER’S “BEST OF” LIST.  But I’m not going to deny myself the fun of it!    So here it is.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2016.  (Click on the titles to read my posts.)

FAVORITE NEW NOVEL.  Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool

FAVORITE DEBUT NOVEL.  Emma Cline’s The Girls

FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION.  Tess Slesinger’s On Learning That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover and Other Stories.

FAVORITE NOVEL IN TRANSLATION. Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles


FAVORITE CLASSIC.  Balzac’s Pere Goriot

FAVORITE “REDISCOVERED” CLASSIC.  Barbara Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths



FAVORITE ENVIRONMENTAL CLASSIC.  Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons

FAVORITE HORROR NOVEL.  E. Nesbit’s Dormant 


FAVORITE FANTASY.  Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place

FAVORITE MYSTERY. Janwillem van de Wetering’s Outsider in Amsterdam

FAVORITE MEMOIR.  Peter Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher

FAVORITE ESSAYS.  MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me


FAVORITE LITERARY CRITICISM.  D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory

FAVORITE HUMOR PIECES.  Jean Kerr’s How I Got to Be Perfect

P.S. Do tell me your favorite books of the year.  I will add them to the list.  And if you give me enough titles , I’ll list them in another post.

The Death of Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher

I was saddened by  Carrie Fisher’s death, but not because I thought of her as “iconic Princess Leia.”  All the obituaries say:  ” Carrie Fisher, ‘Star Wars’ Princess Leia, Dies at 60.”  Is that all they’ve got?

I was a fan of her books.

She wrote comic memoirs and light, witty novels.  The heroines of her fiction transcend dysfunctional personal lives with humor as well as rehab.   Her four novels,  Postcards from the Edge (made into a film with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine), Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, and The Best Awful, a sequel to Postcards (and a bipolar classic), are hugely entertaining. Are theyschick lit?  No,  Suzanne in Postcards and The Best Awful has  addiction problems and bipolar disorder, as did Fisher.

But try to get a copy of her books now she’s dead.  They’re “temporarily out of stock” at Amazon, and there is a long, long waiting list at the library.

So is Fisher finally getting her dues as a writer?

Her new book, The Princess Diarist, capitalizes on her career as Princess Leia, but she has written before about her difficulties in coming to terms with fame at 19.  In her memoir Wishful Drinking, based on a one-woman show, she writes:  “Forty-three years ago, George Lucas ruined my life.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

I’m not into fandom and have no desire to see Star Wars again, but I liked her snappy comebacks to critics who attacked her physical appearance at  58 as General Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  A New York Post critic said, “No one would know the name Carrie Fisher if it weren’t for her ability to leverage her looks.” He disapproved of her complaints about being asked to lose weight for the role.

She tweeted back,

Ok, I quit acting. NOW,can I not like being judged for my looks?Tell me what to do & who to be, oh wise New York post columnist.u GENIUS

Carrie Fisher and Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"

Carrie Fisher and Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”

I liked her as Meg Ryan’s friend in When Harry Met Sally.  Last time I watched it, I wondered what it would have been like  if smart, less pretty Fisher had played Sally instead of blond, cute Meg Ryan.  I enjoy rom/coms, but I just can’t relate to Meg.

And I have just read that Carrie Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds died today.  Tragic.

Miss Beryl in Richard Russo’s “Everybody’s Fool”

everybodys-fool-russo-fool_cover“Who is your audience?”

In Richard Russo’s brilliant novel, Everybody’s Fool, he charms his audience. And he is not the only one to consider audience.  His characters consider the relation of storytelling to audience:  the loquacious Sully changes the stories he tells according to his barfly friends’ reactions.

My favorite character, Raymer, the  inarticulate chief of police, also muses on audience.  He is so bored by a narcissistic minister’s rambling eulogy at a funeral that he flashes on a question often posed by the late Beryl Peoples, his eighth-grade teacher: Who does the minister imagine the audience to be?  (I LOVE MISS BERYL!)

If you haven’t read Russo, Everybody’s Fool is the perfect place to start. It is quite simply my favorite book of the year. Sure, it’s a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, but it can be read as a standalone.   Russo’s sharp style, shrewd observations, and witty dialogue made me remember why I used to love modern fiction:  GOOD WRITING.

Russo chronicles the exploits of the down-and-out inhabitants of  a run-down small town in upstate New York, North Bath.  The town literally stinks:  a sewage-like fug has settled over North Bath, and no one has figured out its source.

The multi-character saga centers on Raymer, a depressed, blundering widower who was elected chief of police despite his bungled campaign slogan:  “We’re not happy till you’re not happy.” This slogan pretty much sums up Raymer’s problems:  he can’t communicate and thus is horrified at the prospect of making a speech about Beryl Peoples at the town’s  celebration of her life:  they are renaming the middle school after Miss Beryl.

“When you write,” she’d advised Raymer and his classmates, “imagine a rhetorical triangle.”  At the top of their essays she always drew two triangles, the first representing the essay the student had written and the second, a differently shaped one that would supposedly help improve it.  As if bringing in geometry–another subject that gave Raymer fits–would clarify things.  The sides of the old lady’s triangle were Subject, Audience, and Speaker, and most of the questions she scribbled in the margins of their papers had to do with the relationship between them. What are you writing ABOUT? she often wanted to know, drawing a squiggly line up the page to the S that marked the subject side.  Even when they were writing on a subject she herself had assigned, she’d insist that the subject was unclear.  Other times she’d query:  Just who do you imagine your AUDIENCE to be?  (Well, you, Raymer always wanted to remind her, though she steadfastly denied this was the case.)  What are your readers doing right now?  What leads you to believe they’d be interested in any of this?  (Well, if they weren’t, why had she assigned the subject to begin with?  Did she imagine he was interested?)

rhetorical-triangleI love this!

Who is my audience?

Uhhhhhh.  Bloggers, bots, and readers? Three bloggers and one reader left comments on yesterday’s post, as did  98sherri, who says my “blog can go viral” if only I click on her website.  98sherri is such a bot!  I deleted her comment.

Let me know who you are, readers!

(But I won’t try to crack your identity, I promise.)

2017 Projects: The Year of Balzac & Absolutely No Promos

Balzac, a strange-looking gent, no?

Balzac, a strange-looking gent, no?

Bloggers have so many projects. There are the reviews (in my case, the “bookish” posts), the group reads, the photos of bookshelves, the Year of This and the Month of That. Bloggers frequently complain of exhaustion, and no wonder. We’re essentially writing our own book newsletters, and some of us write too much. I wrote one post a day in 2013: it really cut into my reading time.

I seldom participate in group reads, because I’m too old, too well-educated, and too well-read. Yup, and since I only have a decade or two left, I direct my own reading . But I very much enjoyed the posts on the year-long group reading of Dorothy Richardson, and even participated in Virago Month, Women in Translation Month, and the 1947 Club (I’m dyslexic with numbers and hope I got the year right. ) These group readings are the equivalent of Yahoo book groups, only more loosely organized.

This has been a bad year politically–I am not happy about the prospect of living in the United States of Exxon next year. So I am about to become a project blogger,

I need distractions.  And so I have made a list of projects for 2017 A very long list.  I’ll only do a few of them.  But here are a couple of my ideas.

Project # 1:  The Year of Reading Balzac


Some of my Balzac books:  2 copies of Cesar B.


More Balzac:  a second copy of History of Thirteen.Balzac was prolific.  He wrote all night, neglected his need for food and drink to churn out journalism and reviews as well as fiction, and died young.

Balzac was prolific.  He wrote all night, lived on coffee, and churned out journalism and reviews as well as fiction.  He neglected his health.  But he had a project.

The Human Comedy consisted of 94 novels and stories.  I will try to read all 95,  but plan to focus on my paperback collection.

The top picture shows History of the Thirteen, Cousin Pons,The Wild Ass’s Skin, Quest of the Absolute, two copies of Cesar Birotteau, Eugenie Grandet, Old Goriot, Cousin Bette, A Murky Business, a second copy of History of the Thirteen, and Selected Short Stories.  I’ve read six of these.

On the second shelf we have Seraphita, Lost Illusions, A Harlot High and Low, Droll Stories, A Murky Business, a Colonel Chabert, The Black Sheep, and At the Sign of the Cat and Racket.  Of these I have read four.

I also have a few 19th-century editions of Balzac in a box.  My husband has no idea that I am cutting brittle nasty acidic pages in old books and getting paper cuts. I can’t do much of that because I seem to be allergic!  Oh dear I love books but I may have to go the e-book route.

Project # 2:  No More Promos

It can’t be done.  I can’t promote free books anymore.  I hardly ever do it, but it’s a burden.  There’s just so much I want to read.  I’m finishing Alice HOffman’s Fidelity, which is a throwback to her earlier novels about dreamy rebellious women who live emotionally behind layers of fairy tale scrims.   The problem is I would have enjoyed it more had I bought the book and read it at leisure.  As it is I read it on my e-reader in line at Target. Not the best place to appreciate her delicate writing.

Any projects pending for you?

A new year, a new start!

Reading on Christmas: We Made It through the Holiday!

prozac-holidays-taintor-screen-shot-2013-12-03-at-5-20-47-pmWe made it through another Christmas.  It was foggy and rainy:  too wet for a walk, so we went to the gym.  And then we got out the books we bought at Barnes and Noble for our gift exchange.  They say you can’t read all the time–my father said reading made me a “non-participant in life”–but I say,  You Can and It Didn’t.

everybodys-fool-russo-fool_coverI am racing through  Richard Russo’s brilliant new novel, Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool. (You probably saw the great movie  Nobody’s Fool, with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith.)

Russo’s new comedy, a pitch-perfect multi-character saga, is set in  North Bath, New York, a run-down small town. (And I guarantee it was never visited by Garrison Keillor!)   Russo chronicles the lives of barflies, misfits, and romance readers, the barely middle-class  and the downwardly-mobile.  Residents envy nearby Schuyler Springs, a prosperous sister town that is a tourist destination and has three colleges.   But even the springs in Bath have dried up. (They’re still bubbling in Schuyler Springs.)  And a horrible sewage-like stench has settled over Bath.  What IS it?

The rich cast of characters is endlessly fascinating.  Sully, the hero of Nobody’s Fool, is 70 years old now, living in a trailer outside the house he inherited from his eighth-grade English teacher, Beryl Peabody.  He has a heart condition, but refuses to have surgery: if he has only a year or two to live, he wants to go out with a bang. His old girlfriend, Ruth, the owner of Hattie’s diner, sees him every day and still occasionally has sex with him, but is focused on family problems:  she is furious that her obese husband, a junk scavenger, has installed an airplane-hangar-size shed in their yard, with the help of Sully, and  terrifed by the violence of her daughter Janey’s ex-husband Roy, just out of  prison.

My favorite character is Raymer, the policeman who was Sully’s nemesis in the first book. He has been elected chief of police, in spite of a campaign slogan malapropism that said,  “We’re not happy till you’re not happy.”  Raymer is depressed and a recent widower:  his beautiful wife, Becca, tripped down the stairs and broke her neck when she was leaving him for a lover she never identified.  Raymer didn’t have a clue she was unfaithful until she found her good-bye note.  With the help of a strange garage door opener found in Becca’s car, he hopes to point and click his way to her lover.  But then he faints at a funeral and falls in the grave and loses the garage door opener. He will do anything to retrieve it…

This book is funny, sad, and charming…and I must admit, terrifying when Russo reveals the consciousness of Roy the ex-con.   Russo is one of the best American writers working today, and though he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls, he is underrated.  I agree with  T. C. Boyle’s reveiw  in The New York Times Book Review:

Nonetheless, taken together, at over 1,000 pages, the two “Fool” books represent an enormous achievement, creating a world as richly detailed as the one we step into each day of our lives. Bath is real, Sully is real, and so is Hattie’s and the White Horse Tavern and Miss Peoples’s house on Main, and I can only hope we haven’t seen the last of them. I’d love to see what Sully’s going to be up to at 80.


Why We Need Magazines & February Hill by Victoria Lincoln


People used to read more.  According to an article in The Atlantic in 2014, the number of American non-readers has nearly tripled since 1978. I may sound like a cranky old lady, but in the days of twentieth-century “print media,” when dozens of magazines like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, The Atlantic, and Harper’s  published short stories and poetry in every issue, Americans took for granted a rich cultural treasure trove of literature.

Was fiction better then?  Well, I think so.  I have been slowly making my way through a three-volume set of  Short Stories from The New Yorker, published on the 25th anniversary of the magazine.  In this wonderful anthology I have read brilliant stories by neglected writers like Kay Boyle, Nancy Hale, and Tess Slesinger.

One of the many forgotten New Yorker writers who has fallen off the literary map is Victoria Lincoln (1904-1981), a novelist and biographer.   There is very little information about her online.   According to her obituary in The New York Times, she was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, attended Radcliffe, and was  best known for her 1934 novel, February Hill, ”a harum-scarum story of an enchanting family that lives by its wits and the grace of the local police force outside Fall River.’


I wish I had found a nicer copy than this!

I am all for harum-scarum, so I ordered a cheap hardback copy of February Hill at Amazon.  The pages are brittle and tanned, but I am delighted to have found it at all.  This quirky, well-written novel is part comedy, part Gothic romance.  Think Faulkner’s poor white trash characters, only matriarchal, crossed with the “loam-and-lovechild” types made famous by English writer Mary Webb.

This story of this shiftless but genial matriarchal family is charming and fast-paced but also poses philosophical questions.  What is morality?  What is loyalty?  Do these qualities have to do with the law, or survival?  The Harris family is poor but lively and contented.  Grandma, an ex-prostitute who wears a startling curly chestnut wig and sings old Vaudeville songs, moved north from Georgia when authorities became too interested in her activities.  She thinks it’s a miracle that the police and social workers have not interfered with them in Fall River.   Her cheerful, party-loving daughter Minna, a  prostitute, supports the family, with a small contribution from her oldest daughter, Dottie, a factory worker. Minna’s husband Vergil, an  alcoholic ex-Harvard scholar, stays home and pretends to read Greek while he drinks himself into oblivion. Two of their children, Jenny and Joel,  have dropped out of school before the legal age, but the schools seem not to have noticed:  Jenny, an unusually pretty girl, takes day-long walks, hitchhikes, and  steals frivolous “presents” for her family.  She lies and plays a character when she cadges food off a farmer’s wife, but part of this is spinning the fantasies of an adolescent.   Joel is very close to Jenny, and often articulates her feelings through his quoting of Shakespeare.  Like his father, he is studious and weak.  Their sturdy younger sister Amy sits on Grandma’s lap and asks for songs, but “talks tough” and shocks visitors with her casual references tos “sonsovbitches.”

Their ramschackle house reflects the personality of family.

The Harris family lived in a shanty, but it was a good, tight, waterproof shanty, and if you called it a house you might have found yourself some justification, chiefly in the assured though rakish air with which it wore an indubitable front porch.  But for my part, I withhold the term, front porch or no; for it was a brazen slattern of a place if ever there was one, and its porch, of which the balustrade was broken down for fully half its length, was like a toothless leer upon its dirty face.  The shabby tangle of young maple and birch that screened it from the road could not hide its disgrace.  It was blatant of shamelessness and discreditable poverty.

Victoria Lincoln

Victoria Lincoln

Is morality determined by convention or class, law or family loyalty? When Jenny marries Berkley Howard, the grandson of a rich socially prominent farmer, he is so ashamed of her family he forbids her to see them.  And yet he himself works as a “rum runner,”  but has a double standard when it comes to prostitution.  Jenny remains loyal to her family, because she knows they are intrinsically good.

Dottie, who marries a French-American factory worker, despises the family as much as Berkley but her hatred backfires.  And  Joel is sent to live with his father’s rich mother in Maine, but this is also a mistake.

Minna makes such an impression on one of her clients, a rich businessman from Texas, that he asks her to marry him. She could leave February Hill.  But how much can a person do for money?  Where do her loyalties lie?

A fascinating novel, a little shaky at times, but overall one of my favorites of the year!

And, by the way, it was adapted for the stage as Primrose Path, and made into a movie with Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea.

A Louisa May Alcott Idyll: The Tasha Tudor Figurines

alcott-figuresMy cousin Megan gave me my Christmas gift today. After the P.O. delivered the package she had ordered from eBay, she came over unannounced to give me “the present of the century.”

“Open this now,” she said when she arrived at my house to find me, for the sixth day in a row, picking up Christmas decorations the cats have knocked off the tree and designated as their toys.  “It will put you in the Christmasy mood.”

It took 20 minutes to cut through the layers of tape and unwind the contents from mummy wrappings of brown paper and bubble wrap.  Inside were nestled  four hand-painted porcelain Little Women figurines, designed by Tasha Tudor and manufactured by Franklin mint.  In order of appearance in the DIY photo above are Beth with kittens, Jo holding a book, Amy sketching, and Meg sewing.

As Megan said, “It makes me want to play dolls.”

Instead, we just rearranged them in different groupings.

I have long been a fan of Louisa May Alcott, as readers of this blog may or may not remember. (I myself have trouble remembering where I read what online.)  Anyway,  my favorite Alcott is An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I wrote about here.  I posted about Eight Cousins here; and spent a lot of time musing on a strange TLS review of Beverly Lyon’s excellent book, The Afterlife of Little Women, here.

Although I do not have a large Alcott collection, I photographed the six books of hers I found on the shelves. This is a blogger kind of photoshoot, is it not?

My first copy of  Little Women was an adapted version, which I no longer have, alas,  purchased at the supermarket when I  was seven. Later I was given a Junior Illustrated Classic, with the complete text.  I longed to  whistle tomboyishly with my hands in my pockets, and cry out, “Christopher Columbus” and “capital!” like Jo.  I also wanted to be a writer.  And I loved the way Jo cares nothing for fashion, or inky pinafores.

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.  Her “scribbling suit consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action.  This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping gin their heads semi-occasionally, to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?”

After my first reading of Little Women, I checked out all the Alcotts I could find from the library:  Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill, to name a few.

Library of America editions of Alcott

Library of America editions of Alcott

I began to acquire my “adult editions’ of Alcott about a decade ago.  When Library of America published a collection of  Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys  in 2005, I reread these entertaining, witty classics.  In 2014  LOA published a second Alcott edition, comprised of Work (known as the adult Little Women), Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings.

An Intimate Anthology is a wonderful collection, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite Alcott.

An Intimate Anthology is a wonderful collection, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite Alcott.

I strongly recommend The New York Public Library edition of An Intimate Anthology, a collection of Alcott’s stories, diary entries, letters, and verse, including Transcendental Wild Oats, about life in her father’s commune, and Hospital Sketches, a fictional account of her experiences as a Civil War nurse.  And, as I have mentioned,  An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite of Alcott’s books.

alcott-sensation-fiction-behind-a-mask-inheritanceAnd here are Alcott’s sensational writings!  Behind a Mask is a collection of the thrillers she wrote for money, and The Inheritance, a Gothic romance she wrote at 17.

What is your favorite Alcott book?

Now I just want to sit here and admire my figurines some more.

Last Minute Christmas Gifts, As If! Your Personal Shopper Speaks



Last-minute gifts are a bad, bad idea.

This is your life.  This is your wife’s life, too.  That is why I, your personal shopper, am interceding.  Your stressed-out wife may or may not want a diamond necklace from Gales–I don’t know her, but I wouldn’t –but she will not be amused if you present her with a Broncos stocking cap you picked up at an airport shop.

And when you ask her if pears from Harry and David’s will arrive before the holiday, guess what?  She believes you are sending them to her.  If your mother gets the pears and she gets the stocking cap, There Will Be Tears.

Okay, I’ve been there.  I’ve failed in spousal gift-giving, too. That organic watch?  Turns out it wasn’t organic:  he explained the corn resin manufacturing processes pollutes, and the company was preying on my environmental  conscience.  He accidentally dunked it in the dishwater.

And so we had to rethink our gift-giving process. Dramatically.  We go to a bookstore on Christmas Eve and each of us picks out a book.  And now we have a Happy Christmas!

If your wife loves to read, here are Five Last-Minute Items That Probably Won’t Offend Her.  Just be sure you get a gift receipt.

potok-the-chosen-9781501142475_hr1. The fiftieth-anniversary edition of Chaim Potok’s modern classic, The Chosen.  has a new introduction, critical essays, and rare papers and photos.  A best-seller in the ’60s, this beautifully-written novel is the story of two  friends, one an Orthodox Jew and the other a Hasidic Jew, and their clashes with their fathers and their faith.  Loved it when I read it, and would like to reread it.

vivid-and-repulsive-51mwfr9nsal-_sx310_bo1204203200_2.  Dover has published a beautiful paperback edition of Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna Barnes. Best known for her modernist 1936 classic  Nightwood, she explored Bohemianism, feminism, and lesbianism in her writing. This  wonderful collection of Barnes’ early journalism, fiction, and poetry is a joy.

penguin-christmas-classics-97801431297833. The Penguin Christmas Classics. You can buy these individually, or you can buy a boxed set.  These six beautifully-designed books comprise Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Anthony Trollope’s  Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories,  L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Louisa May Alcott’s A Merry Christmas and Other Christmas Stories, Nikolai Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas, and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker.

penguin-galaxy-all_front_white-1274x12004.  The Penguin Galaxy SF Series.  This selection of science fiction classics is quirky and surprising, and the introductions are by Neil Gaiman.  The series consists of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Arthur c. Clarke’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. 

ross-maconald-loa-41kq458b9l-_sy344_bo1204203200_5. Michael Dirda has written extensively about the mystery writer, Ross MacDonald, whom he calls the best American detective novelist of the ’50s and ’60s.  Check out this Library of America edition of  Ross MacDonald’s Three Novels of the Early 1960s:  The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill, and  The Far Side of the Dollar

All right, do you know what’s expected now?  Really, don’t give her anything from Scheels unless she’s a jock!

Cookery Gone Wrong: When Good Women Cook Bad Food

Tina (Carrie Snodgrass) at party with her husband (Richard Benjamin) in "Diary of a Mad Housewife"

Tina (Carrie Snodgrass) at party with her husband (Richard Benjamin) in “Diary of a Mad Housewife”

In the late 1960s, when I was a teenager,  I began to read John Updike (Couples) and Sue Kaufman (Diary of a Mad Housewife). I pictured the chic, adulterous, party-going characters as Barbie dolls, in sparkly black cocktail dresses, accompanied not, well, by Ken, but perhaps Mick Jagger.  In Updike country, women passed the canapes and downed highballs, while their husbands flirted and networked. Sometimes the women are jealous; other times they’re making their own assignations.  What I learned:  being a good hostess and great cook  has nothing  to do with marriage.

In the same era, my own mother did not attend cocktail parties, nor did she call anything a canape.  She opened soup cans, fried chicken, and tossed iceberg lettuce with French dressing, but we ate out much of the time, in a decade when most people ate in.  She had that ’60s thank-God-for-packaged-and-prepared-food attitude that meant cooking was a thing of the past:  she was relieved not to be a prisoner of the kitchen.

She stopped cooking after her divorce, because she literally fell apart for a few years.  And, unfortunately, like a typical teenager,  I vowed I would never be like her, not understanding the reality of DNA.

Cooking  did not come naturally to me.  I make quick, healthy sandwiches and soups because I do not enjoy cooking and do not run to a sous chef.  What do I serve guests?  Chili or roast chicken.  Yup.  Two unadventurous dishes it’s hard to go wrong with.  My mother served Stouffers lasagna and McDonald’s hot fudge sundaes at bridge club parties.

And over the years I have had my failures, when I attempted something out of my comfort zone.  These days I empathize with my mother.


little-women-alcott-penguin-threads-61xwdwbgael-_sx331_bo1204203200_1.The witty  Louisa May Alcott, one of my favorite writers, preferred  “blood-and-thunder” stories to her popular books for girls, which she wrote to pay the bills.  Sure, there are morals in every chapter, which I loved as a girl, by the way, but Alcott is a feminist with strong heroines and subversive subtexts.  Her characters must master boring domestic skills, because they are poor and don’t have a house full of servants, but it is not their raison d’être.  Jo in Little Women sells blood-and-thunder stories to newspapers, and Mother and the girls are proud, but patriarchal Father, if I remember correctly, puts the kibosh on that. In a later novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl, creativity is valued:  the heroine Polly is not only an excellent, if impoverished,  musician and music teacher, but hangs out with a community of artistic women.

In Little Women, the March sisters loathe housework and cooking as much as I do. This satisfied me deeply when I was a child.   In Chapter XI, “Experiments,” they beg Marmee to let them off chores for a week of their vacation, because Meg, a governess to a rich family, and Jo, cranky Aunt March’s companion, are  tired of trying to please others and want some leisure. And yet the leisure palls, and they are almost glad when Marmee  and Hannah, the servant, declare they are taking a day off.  No problem!  They’ll do the housework.  The slangy, writerly, tomboyish Jo makes lunch, but she boils the asparagus till the tips fall off,  burns the bread, and has to crack open the lobster with a hammer.  And she must serve it to guests, Laurie and Miss Crocker, as well as her sisters.

Poor Jo would gladly have gone under the table, as one thing after another was tasted and left, while Amy giggled, Meg looked distressed, Miss Crocker pursed her lips, and Laurie talked and laughed with all his might to give a cheerful tone to the festive scene. Jo’s one strong point was the fruit, for she had sugared it well, and had a pitcher of rich cream to eat with it. Her hot cheeks cooled a trifle, and she drew a long breath as the pretty glass plates went round, and everyone looked graciously at the little rosy islands floating in a sea of cream. Miss Crocker tasted first, made a wry face, and drank some water hastily. Jo, who refused, thinking there might not be enough, for they dwindled sadly after the picking over, glanced at Laurie, but he was eating away manfully, though there was a slight pucker about his mouth and he kept his eye fixed on his plate. Amy, who was fond of delicate fare, took a heaping spoonful, choked, hid her face in her napkin, and left the table precipitately.

But she is sure of the dessert.  How can you go wrong with strawberries and cream?

Salt instead of sugar, and the cream is sour.

Later in the book, Meg, too, has a culinary disaster when her husband brings  home a guest while she is making jam that won’t set.  And then there is “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,”which I wrote about here.

Clearly Alcott’s sympathies are with the undomestic!  Her characters master plain cooking and housework but only from necessity.

everybodys-fool-russo-fool_cover2. In Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, Ruth, the owner of Hattie’s diner, recalls her domestic dim-wittery when she got knocked up years ago and married the junk-scavenger Zack.  They lived with his horrible mother, also named Ruth, who sabotaged her attempts to learn to cook.

Eventually she had grudgingly copied out on notecards the recipes for a few of Zack’s favorite meals.  They never turned out right, though.  The recipes either left out key ingredients or were unclear about techniques or got the proportions wrong, which made Ruth look like a very slow learner indeed….Only after Ruth finally tumbled to the fact that her culinary efforts were being sabotaged, and compared the notecard recipes with others in cookbooks she’d checked out from the library, did she begin to improve.

I’m glad Ruthless Mother, as she is nicknamed, is not my mother-in-law.

3. In the memoir, The Gastronomical Me, MFK Fisher describes simple French food which she made accessible to Americans in her food writing.  But she started out a simple California girl who liked to cook. One night, when her parents were out,  Mary Frances decided to cook supper for herself and her sister.  She chose  a recipe for something called “Hindu eggs,” and quadrupled the amount of curry powder in the cream sauce.  The girls ate as much of it as they could, pretending to be nonchalant about the spice.  But it did not end well.

gastronomical me mfk fisher 3040324.In Margaret Sidney’s charming classic, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Polly Pepper is determined to bake a birthday cake for Ma.  Naturally, there are difficulties: they don’t have the ingredients,  their nearly-deaf next-door neighbor can’t find the recipe she has in mind, and there is a hole in the stove that makes the oven temperature uncertain.  But eventually the cake comes out of the oven.

Oh dear!  of all the things in the world!  The beautiful cake over which so many hopes had been formed, that was tot have given so much happiness on the morrow to the dear mother, presented a forlorn appearance as it stood there in anything but holiday attire.  It was quite black on the top, in the center of which was a depressing little dump, as if to say, “My feelings wouldn’t allow me to rise to the occasion!”

But a posy in the middle hides the hollow in the cake, and Ma is delighted by their efforts.


5.  In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, the 28-year-old heroine, Kate, keeps house for her scientist father and younger sister Bunny, and makes the same meal every night.  When her father’s Russian genius assistant, Pyoty,  decides to court Kate, he, too, must eat her cooking.

She turned back to the stove. She was reheating the concoction they had for supper every night. Meat mash, they called it, but it was mainly dried beans and green vegetables and potatoes, which she mixed with a small amount of stewed beef every Saturday afternoon and puréed into a grayish sort of paste to be served throughout the week. Her father was the one who had invented it. He couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t follow the same system; it provided all the requisite nutrients and saved so much time and decision-making.

Oh, Kate!

Tyler vinegar girl ows_146611602236206. Cover your eyes!  This one is gory.  In Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, one hideous bad dinner party is memorable.  King Tereus marries Procne, daughter of Pandius, who begs him to sail back to her home country and bring her sister, Philomela,  for a visit.  Instead, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue so she can’t talk, and leaves her in the woods.  When Philomela weaves a tapestry of the story and finds her way to her sister, they plot revenge.  They kill Procne’s son, Itys, and serve him up as a “ritual” meat dish to Tereus.  Ugh!

If you can think of any other bad cookery stories in literature, let me know!

Ovid Metamorphoses 51QQ3C0NSYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_