Karen Brown’s The Clairvoyants

the-clairvoyants-karen-brown-51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_“It’s not as poetic as The Girls,” says my friend Janet, the poet.  “But it is poetic.”

She was talking about Karen Brown’s The Clairvoyants, the first selection of our new book club.

The club was Janet’s idea.  She has been perturbed by tangle of work stress and boyfriend problems:  she started a new job and her ageing boyfriend now wants to move in to her tiny converted chicken coop in Amish country.

The book club is a diversion. “Let’s go to a bookstore, choose a stack of interesting books,read first chapters, and then choose the most interesting.”

There are seven of us:  we’re all big readers.  The Clairvoyants was Janet’s selection.

And we all loved Brown’s beautifully-written novel, which bridges the gap between literary and commercial fiction. (You can tell by the blurbs:  one by National Book Award-winning Lily Tuck, another by Edgar winner Lori Roy.) It is the story of two sisters, Martha, a reluctant clairvoyant, who, after she moves to Ithaca,  repeatedly sees the ghost of Mary Rae, a missing person.  Her sister, wild, promiscuous Del, drinks and takes too many drugs until she has a mental breakdown.  Their mother pulls strings and  banishes her to a progressive mental hospital.

The girls grew up near a summer community of clairvoyants by the sea, and through their spying learned the tricks of mediums.  Del, the huckster, sets up their own psychic business in the barn for a day; even an adult neighbor consults Martha the clairvoyant.

But later they are occupied with boys.  And one summer they are traumatized by the murder of David, a local boy who made sexual advances to both.  For years they are hounded by a detective.  And Martha, though outwardly normal, seldom leaves home, and whiles away two years commuting to Wesleyan part-time.  Finally her mother packs her off to Cornell:  she is so eager to get rid of Martha that she doesn’t even spend the first night with Martha in her strange new apartment. And so Martha goes on a walk at night, following the ghost Mary Rae.

Her observations are both wise and elegiac.

I pretended I was simply out for a walk on a late summer evening.  I tried to focus on the trees arching over the sidewalk, the quaintness of the houses with their big front porches, imagining how I would describe things to Del in a letter.  The air felt cooler and the breeze, which had once seemed to promise a storm, kicked the leaves.  We walked down one street, then another–Geneva, Cascadilla.  Students had moved in, had laid down their rugs, and were acclimating to the people around them.  It didn’t escape me that my fresh start involved none of those things; rather than making new friends, I was following a dead girl.  I approached a party on a candlelit porch–laughter, banter, the group partially hidden by tall shrubbery.  Mary Rae stopped walking and paused, lingering, as if she longed to join them; as if she sensed I, too, wished to go in.

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

Brown’s prose is poetic, almost scannably rhythmic, as she spins her slow, subtle story. Telling details vivify the scenes.  As an art student Martha takes eerie photos of ghosts (other people see empty spaces with a  strange light). And Del shows up on her doorstep, having left the mental institution, and moves in with her.  Del is strange: she makes friends with a psychic in a homeless encampment.  But she is also her sister’s protector, worried about Martha’s relationship with William, a photographer who used to be involved with Mary Rae.

And since many people are “psychic,” to a degree–we all say we’re psychic  in the book club–we were fascinated by the concept as well as the writing.

Moodwise, it’s where Twilight meets The Secret History.  No vampires, but there is a murderer or two.

And here is a description of Karen Brown from the Macmillan website.

Little Sinners and Other Stories was named a Best Book of 2012 by Publisher’s Weekly; her previous collection, Pins and Needles received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction; and her first novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls, was published in 2013 by Washington Square Press to rave reviews. Her work has been featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, and Good Housekeeping. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.

Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing


Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable—but then she had never been married.
—Beryl Bainbridge’s “The Bottle Factory Outing”

You either like Beryl Bainbridge or you don’t.

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

I enjoy her later work, which on some level can be labeled historical fiction. I loved The Birthday Boys, a flawless, entertaining novel based on Scott’s expedition to Antarctica.  But I find her early books both mordant and morbid, and though I admire them, I always think at the end, “God, I need to read Barbara Pym.”

beryl-bainbridge-bottle-factory-opeing-448160So I’m not quite a Bainbridge person.

This weekend I sped through her very short, witty, edgy novel, The Bottle Factory Outing. Her comically realistic portrayal of ill-matched roommates, Freda, a domineering big blonde, and Brenda, a  likable thirtyish woman who has recently left her husband, is hilarious.  The two women squabble constantly. Freda dominates, but Brenda protests.  Freda insists they take part-time jobs at a neighboring Italian wine-bottling factory:  she wants contact with the working class.  Freda tries to organize a union, but they pay no more attention to Freda ultimately than Brenda does. And I have to laugh, having known Fredas and Brendas.

It starts with a funeral—Freda cries as she looks out the window at a hearse with flowers on top.  Four paid men carry a coffin with an old lady down the stairs. Brenda doesn’t want to look.

Freda is whimsically sentimental.

“I like funerals. All those flowers—a full life coming to a close.”

“She didn’t look as if she had a full life,” said Brenda. “She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners—no sons or anything.”

“Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you.  When I go I shall have my family about me–daughters–sons–my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…”

Freda has no one:  she is an orphan, brought up by an aunt she never sees. And because she has no one, we have a flash of intuition that she might end up like the old woman. Brenda, on the other hand, comes from a big well-to-do family, went to private school, and still has contact with her husband and mother-in-law. When the  mother-in-law shows up  one day to threaten Brenda with a gun, Freda is envious that she excites so much passion.

At first we think Freda might be the weaker of the two, but she is the one who orchestrates their lives and needs action.  She first saw Brenda having a  breakdown in the butcher’s shop, weeping that her husband has left her (though it turns out that Brenda has left him). Freda loves to organize:  she takes Brenda under her wing and finds them a tiny flat where, unfortunately they must sleep in the same bed—and they are not gay.   Brenda puts a bolster and a pile of books between them at night so there can be no contact. I never thought of a book barrier!


Beryl Bainbridge

Freda does not attract people—though it’s not that she’s not pretty. She is too brash and argumentative for the Italian men at the factory.  She has a crush on Vittorio, the factory owner’s nephew, but he is engaged to someone else. . Rossi, the boss, keeps cornering Brenda for a little bit of “fun”:  Brenda attracts men but wants nothing to with them.  Finally Freda marches into the office and tells Rossi to leave Brenda alone.  Freda organizes  a Sunday outing for the bottle factory workers because she wants to spend time with Vittorio.

Everything at the outing goes wrong.  And I do mean everything. The van doesn’t show up. A few people cram themselves into cars, but most have to go home.  .The boss, Rossi, drives them to Windsor park instead of the stately home Freda had arranged.  They tour Windsor Castle, and Freda is furious that the dungeon is closed.  Clearly she is heading for a fall.

After the picnic, the men play soccer.   There are walks in the woods and stones are thrown.  I won’t tell you who, what, when, why or how  but someone dies. And the book ends with a macabre funeral–coming back full circle.

Undercover Blogger!

exhausted-woman with head down at desk
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
—King Lear

I am an undercover blogger. It doesn’t sound very nice, does it?

But something is happening to writing, isn’t it? We see it in books; we see it online.   And I want to get to the bottom of it (says she who has been reading hard-boiled detective fiction).

Online writing is quick and dirty.  You don’t want to read too much of it.  Content trumps style, just as Twitter trumps Trump. Bloggers are earnest and often intelligent, but they lack polish.  Perhaps we can do better, perhaps not.  The problem is…reading bad writing online affects  your style, logic, and critical judgment.

Two online book-ish (and I do mean “-ish”) tabloids, Book Riot and Flavorwire, have pinched the worst features of blogs. These corporate vandals (or are they corporate?) have co-opted, rioted, wired and mimicked the hit-and-run triteness of the least-researched and most vacuous social media.  Even one of their teeny-tiny articles will make you feel stupid for a day, because you were stupid even to go there.

I am forever looking for new blogs, because better blogs will inspire us to do better, surely?  Many of the best old-time bloggers have become stale, opted out, or begun to write about new subjects. The blog is, after all, a very old medium now. You never know:  I might close this blog and start over again.  There was no real reason to shut down my old blog, but I did on a whim.   I gained new readers, and I have more “subscribers” here, though I barely know what that means.  Does it matter?

But my internet problems are nothing.  What bothers me  is the influence of social media on newspapers, magazines, and books.  I don’t mean it’s all bad. Sometimes it’s for better, sometimes for worse.

A cult classic

A cult classic

FOR THE (VERY) GOOD: Natasha Stagg’s brilliant debut novel, Surveys, is, or should be, a cult classic.  The underemployed heroine works for a marketing company that conducts surveys at the mall after being rejected from Victoria’s Secret,  Hot Topic, Charlotte Russe, Sweet Factory, The Gap, Banana Republic, Guess, Express, The Limited, J. Crew, and The United Colors of Benneton.  At night she  entertains herself with drinking, drugs, and the internet.  And when social media become more real than her life and she meets a “semi-famous” person online, they meet and become a couple, and then travel the world hosting parties sponsored by corporations.   It is an empty life, but Stagg makes it real.

FOR THE GOOD (MOSTLY):  I had low expectations of Maria Semple’s comic novel, Today Will Be Different.  Semple’s first novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, was mostly a collection of e-mails, and who wants to read e-mail offline?  But Today Will Be Different  is brilliant and witty.   The heroine, a Seattle housewife, is alternately grumpy and effervescent.  She neglects her husband and son and can’t concentrate on writing her graphic memoir. So from e-mail to a graphic novel?  Part of the novel is a graphic novel–and it’s great!

FOR THE BAD:  Samantha Ellis’s bibliomemoir, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, reflects the influence of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. Margaret Drabble in the TLS called it “a selfie memoir,” but kindly overlooked the naiveté of Ellis’s criticism.  I was very disappointed: it reads like the musings of a blogger.  But why should I care if this book is good or bad? It will be a popular book. The Brontes are popular.  It harms no one.  But beware, Bronte scholars.  You won’t be pleased.  And, that said, if you want my copy, send me an e-mail at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

FOR WORSE:  Feature stories instead of news on the first page of failing newspapers in the Midwest, shorter articles in intellectual magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, et al) and shorter reviews in prestigious book review pages and journals.

Bad times are ahead: it will be harder to get a good education, and online sources won’t help.  Someone is trying to pass a bill requiring universities to hire equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.  Oh God…as if this ever came up in any classes except political science.

Meanwhile, I keep blogging.  I could do better. But…

The Less the Better


Everyone needs to review Strunk and White.

The less we read on the internet the better.

Too much social media–yes, even blogs: sorry!–and too many pop culture sites can make us stupid. My mind is sluggish after an hour on the internet.

Did you know that Oxforddictionaries.com has added, according to The Guardian?

“clicktivism” (a pejorative word for armchair activists on social media), “haterade” (excessive negativity, criticism, or resentment), “otherize” (view or treat – a person or group of people – as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself),…“Craptacular” (remarkably poor and disappointing), “bronde” (hair dyed both blond and brunette) and “fitspiration” (a person or thing that serves as motivation for someone to sustain or improve health and fitness)…

And to think I used to long for a two-volume edition of the OED with the magnifying glass!  Now I’m thankful for my old Webster’s.

Book Riot has discovered the importance of dictionaries.

Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster are not just entertaining and informing us. They are taking an essential step towards freeing us: giving us the tools, the words, to free ourselves. This is important work, and in a world where the president of the United States is a Twitter troll, it’s risky work that takes bravery and stamina.

Oh, dear.  What’s with the “bravery” and “stamina?” What about the long hours of research? Why not “informative” for “informing us” and “freedom” for “freeing us?”  Why not write a piece on the history of dictionaries?  But, no, this is “just entertaining” and not “informing us.”

At the always verbose Bustle I read “Why Reading Should Be Considered Essential Self-Care For Every Activist”

Self-care: we’ve heard the term, scrolled through suggestions, and read the how-to’s, but now it’s time we developed our own non-negotiable routines if we have any chance at surviving these next four years. While every individual’s personal needs are different, I have to say that reading should be considered essential self-care for every activist and resistor.

“Self-care,” “non-negotiable routines,” “how-to’s,” and “essential self-care” all in one paragraph!  What more could we ask?

Everyone needs to review his or her Strunk and White.  I, too.  Et tu, Brute?

Colette’s Duo and Le Toutounier

The name and image of Michel came to torment her. She harbored against her dead husband a grudge which often distracted her from her variable, capricious and ill-controlled grief.”—”Le Toutounier” by Colette

colette-duo-641782-_uy475_ss475_Colette was a fascinating bisexual woman with multiple husbands and lovers, a lyrical writer, a traveling music-hall artist, a critic, a journalist, and the owner of a cosmetics business. Not only was Colette extraordinarily beautiful and original but she wrote beautifully and originally about love and work.  As Erica Jong says in the introduction to The Colette Omnibus, “Colette’s fiction…is self-mythologizing in the way Proust’s or Henry Miller’s fiction is.   It often draws upon the author’s life with seeming candor, but is not literal autobiography.  The facts of the author’s life have been shaped, honed, and elevated to myth.”

And it is perhaps the myth that raises Colette to cult status.  Was any writer more popular than Colette among women readers when Farrar Straus Giroux reissued her books in paperback in the ’70s? Judging from the number of Goodreads reviews, she is still popular today.  How much is fiction? How much is fact?  Some years ago I read two biographies of Colette, Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette and Creating Colette By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier.  And still I mix up fact with fiction, because her memoirs seem so closely tied up with her novels.  Of course Renée, a traveling music-hall artist in the novel, The Vagabond,  is not Colette, but she is what we would like Colette to be.

The time comes when one can’t reread the favorites constantly, and goes back to lesser works.  I recently reread Duo, a novel I didn’t care for much years ago, and Le Toutounier, a sequel I’d never heard of.

In the quotation at the top of the page, from her novel Le Toutounier, the heroine, Alice, is bewildered, sad, and angry. Her  husband Michel drowned in what she calls “an accident” on the river while they were on vacation. She has returned to Paris and, as she lets herself into her bohemian, impoverished sisters’ flat, she does not quite allow herself to realize it was suicide.  In Alice’s case, he died so suddenly that she can’t come to grips with it.  Readers of Duo know he committed suicide.

duo-harcover-colette-9780672518492-usThis diptych of novels is rather stagy:  indeed Duo was later adapted as a play. And this “duet” between a theatrical couple, Michel and Alice, beautifully reveals their characters in dialogue.  Michel, who directs theatrical seasons in casino towns, is the more sensitive of the two, worried about the business.  Practical Alice, who grew up poor with three sisters who also worked in different capacities in the theater, designs costumes and doesn’t worry .

The plot of Duo centers on Michel’s discovery that Alice had a brief affair with his business partner. When she attempts to hide a purple portfolio, he insists on looking at it.  As he carries orchids in a glass jar to the table of the run-down family manor house where they are vacationing,  the dialogue is charming and lyrical.

“The purple light looked so pretty in your eyes and on your cheeks…like that. But we need that other thing too; it’s the same color—you know what I mean?”

“What other thing? Look out, Michel—you’re spilling the water from the flowers. Are you coming?”

“I’ve never knocked over the water from flowers in all my life! Some kind of blotter—it was there, on your bureau…it isn’t there anymore. Have you put it away? What were you doing with it? Were you writing?”

colette-duo-dell-9780440321439-uk-300There is a  love letter in the portfolio. He does not take the affair in stride, even when she tries to sugar-coat it.  He is, however, aware that he cannot express his anger while their housekeeper, Maria, is in the house. Alice is annoyed that he cares so much what people think but what Michel says is true:  they are vacationing in his manor house in the country where gossip spreads very quickly.  Finally, she tells him more about the affair, since he can’t seem to get over it, and he commits suicide while she is sleeping.  He is thinking grimly on the way to the river that she’ll have no problems dealing with the business and the estate.

In Le Toutounier, Alice returns to Paris, after being hassled by the insurance agents trying to prove it was suicide. She moves into the crowded flat with her sisters, bright, brittle, pretty women, Colombe and Hermine, with married lovers. Actually, Colombe is a virgin, faithful to her inaccessible man, while Hermine is dramatic, having a nearly fatal meeting with the wife.   Le toutounier is the  big American sofa where they relax and where two of them sleep. And, ironically, her sisters’ involvements with their inappropriate men mean that soon Alice will have le toutounier all to herself.  She doesn’t want to be alone, but she will be alone.

I preferred Le Toutounier to Duo, though that, too, was much better than I had remembered.  Her best books are great; her lesser books are better than you think.

What’s on my Nightstand?

the-romanovs-618fqfo-orlWhat’s on my nightstand?

I don’t actually have a nightstand.  What I have is a box of books by the bed. And now the books have spilled out of the box on to the floor, so the nightstand takes up about three feet of the floor. My nighttime reading lately has been The Romanovs: 1613-1918, a fascinating 744- page history by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  But, alas, my reading of The Romanovs has been interrupted by a SPORTS INJURY.

doctor-thorne-trollope-51nmupbvcxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This sounds impossible, but I hurt my wrist by my two favorite low-impact activities.  During a week of reading  hefty classics by Trollope while  lying down, my wrist began to hurt from holding up the books.  Then over the weekend, I went on a very long bike ride with my speedy husband and it was a point of honor to keep up with him (well, sort of, since he slows down for me). Anyway, my wrist hurt like hell while pedaling up a hill and pressing down on the handlebars.

And so I’ve been icing my wrist, slinging ice into a ziplock bag and balancing it on top of or under the wrist.

Meanwhile, I am reading paperbacks so as not to irritate the muscles, tendons, what they may be. Here are three of the books on the nightstand.aird-stately-home-murder-51dwlzrcjjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

1 The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird. I love Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloane mysteries, and though I may or may not have read this one, published in 1970, I certainly like rereading as well as reading. Here is the Goodreads description:

On a stately home public tour, mischievous boy lifts the visor from a suit of armor – and finds corpse. Inspector Sloan and inadvertent joker Constable Crosby must sort out who stashed the body and why. Key is tea served to batty great-aunts. Clues also are in ne’er-do-well nephew and attempted blackmail.

2 Simenon’s The Shadow Puppet. It’s Simenon.  Everyone loves Simenon.  I don’t dislike Simenon, but I don’t love him. I prefer English cozies to police procedurals, and my experience has been the translations of Simenon are not always elegant.  Still, this new Penguin series, with new translations, has been praised, so perhaps I’ll really like it. What we do with our Simenons  is pass them around to  cousins e in Nevada, Iowa (pronounced Ne-vay-da ),What Cheer, Washington, or Muscatine.  And they pass it on to friends in Davenport, or Riverside.

simeon-shadow-puppet-233655273 Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwacked Piano. Thomas McGuane is a literary writer, a wild writer, and I love this  very nice Contemporary American Fiction original paperback, known as a yuppieback in the ’80s.  McGuane is wild, he is really out there, and he is much praised.  Here’s the Goodreads description.

As a citizen, Nicholas Payne is not in the least solid. As a boyfriend, he is nothing short of disastrous, and his latest flame, the patrician Ann mcguane-bushwacked-pianao-1439049270708Fitzgerald, has done a whose thing by dropping him. But Ann isn’t counting on Nicholas’s would persistence, or on the slapstick lyricism of Thomas McGuane, who in The Bushwhacked Piano sends his hero from Michigan to Montana on a demented mission of courtship whose highlights include a ride on a homicidal bronco and apprenticeship to the inventor of the world’s first highrise for bats. The result is a tour de force of American dubious.

Okay!  These are my choices.  I’m starting with a mystery.  And I hope I’ll be done with it before I go to bed.


Reading Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises & Literary Links

margaret-drabble-the-dark-flood-rises-51zpqxcwb2l-_sx337_bo1204203200_What am I reading?

I am halfway through Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a new novel which harkens back to her ambitious multi-character masterpieces of the ’70s and ’80s (my favorites are The  Needle’s Eye, The Realms of Gold, and The Radiant Way). She boldly balances the struggles of her ageing characters and their children with a fictional investigation of the plight of the elderly, the sick, and the dying.  Appropriate housing for the aged is at the core of the novel, and is in many ways at the core of the problems of ageing.

Drabble’s new novel is not as dark as you might expect.  It is positively cozy compared to what we found as we searched for the right assisted living facility or nursing home for my mother. (In other words, we knew nothing about eldercare until we had to know.) My favorite character in The Dark Flood Rises is Fran Stubbs, an  exuberant woman in her seventies,  who works for “a charitable trust which devotes generous research funds to examining and improving the living arrangements of the ageing.” She is not slowing down, which we find cheering, and travels all over England to conferences, driving her car.  She lives in a high-rise (not recommended for the aged), where she sometimes must walk up many flights of stairs. Her friends, many of whom are sick and dying, live in retirement communities, at home with aides, or, in one case, in the Canary Islands with a younger lover.

Brilliant writing!  and depressing, but my mother would NOT have found it depressing.


1917-ows_1481847425738301. ARE YOU A RUSSIAN LITERATURE FAN? The TLS has recently published several articles on Russian literature.

Go here to read a review of 1917:  Stories and poems of the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Go here to read a 1967 review by Edwin Morgan of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which, by the way, had its fiftieth anniversary last year.

2 RACHEL INGALLS’ FICTION.  At the Literary Hub, Daniel Handler writes on “The Best Writer You Don’t Know:  Rachel Ingalls.”  Pharos has republished three of Ingalls’ novellas in a new book, Three Masquerades.


The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.


4. IS THE TEMPEST YOUR FAVORITE SHAKESPEARE PLAY?  At the Barnes and Noble blog, Kelly Anderson writes about Jacqueline Carey’s new novel, Miranda and Caliban, a retelling of The Tempest

Enjoy your reading!

Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor & Under My Skin

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

I’m checking in briefly to make a few remarks about Doris Lessing.   I  just finished rereading her superb 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and want to say a few words about it while it is fresh in my mind.

Some read The Memoirs strictly as dystopian fiction, but it is also a psychological, often surreal, portrait of Lessing. The narrator, an “older woman,” tries to understand the breakdown of society as the city crumbles around her and the media become increasingly unreliable and propagandistic.  She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, tribes of young people are leaving the city, and only the rich are still on the grid.  In a surreal scene, she becomes the guardian of a young girl, Emily: throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to help Emily, obviously her younger self  (and very like Martha Quest in The Children of Violence series).  You should also know that Lessing’s mother was named Emily, and that Lessing frequently explored mother-daughter relationships in her work.

A few years ago  Jenny Diski, in her “memoir” of Doris Lessing, which was first published in the London Review of Books, claimed that she was Emily in the novel.  Well, I was skeptical, but my assumption was that all writers and most sophisticated readers  realize that memoirs are to a certain extent made up, and that all would take this with a grain of salt.  Some of the material in Diski’s book is mined from Lessing’s novels,  without attribution.  So I was surprised that so many bloggers, at least, read her book as the literal truth about Lessing.  And so it makes me wonder about the breakdown of critical thinking, as well as the breakdown of society.  (But has there ever BEEN critical thinking?)

under-my-skin-lessing-41gwuvmd8yl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Well, obviously I’m not writing a thesis about this, but  tonight I opened Lessing’s Under My Skin:  Volume One of My Autobiography at random, and, as I suspected, my reading of The Memoirs is correct:  Emily IS Lessing (and sometimes Lessing’s mother)!

Compare these two incidents, one from Memoirs of a Survivor and one from Under My Skin, in which Emily/Doris is sadistically tickled by her father, a World War I veteran.  In Memoirs of a Survivor,  we see this scene because the narrator frequently visits the past: she travels behind the walls of her flat where there is another house in a different dimension in which rooms (her psyche) need tidying, painting, etc.  She also visits Emily/Doris’s past, set in different times, sometimes at the turn of the (20th) century, sometimes mid-century, but always long before the time of the events of the novel.  Well, Lessing was born in 1919, hence our travels through the 20th century.

From The Memoirs of a Survivor:

In a large chair set against the curtains, the soldier-like man sat with his knees apart, gripping between them the small girl who stood shrieking.  On his face, under the moustache, was a small tight smile. He was “tickling” the child.  This was a “game,” the bedtime “game,” a ritual.  The elder child was played with, was being made tired, was being given her allowance of attention, and it was a service by the father to the mother, who could not cope with the demands of her day, the demands of Emily.  …  her body was contorting and twisting to escape the man’s great hands that squeezed and dug into her ribs, to escape the great cruel face that bent so close over her with its look of private satisfaction. …  She shrieked, “No, no, no, no”…helpless, being explored and laid bare by this man.

From Under My Skin:

And then the moment when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell–he never did go in for washing much, and–don’t forget–this was before easy dry-cleaning, and people’s clothes smelled, they smelled horrible.  By now my head is aching badly, the knocking headache of over-excitement.  His great hands go to work on my ribs.  My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate.  Then tears…

… But I did not stop having nightmares about those great hands torturing my ribs until I was seven or eight.  Those nightmares were clear in my mind now as they were then, though the emotion has long gone away.  I became an expert on nightmares and how to outwit them when I was a small child, and the nightmare of being helpless and “tickled” was the worst.

A horrifying scene!  And I’m sure there is more, much more, in her autobiography to  parallel scenes in this novel.  I am writing this because I think it is important to realize that this novel is not about Jenny Diski.

Here is what Diski said (I don’t have her book, but I copied this excerpt from the LRB into a blog post a few years ago):

t made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

I do not believe for a minute that The Memoirs of a Survivor is about Diski.  It is a misreading, and, believe me, this is one of her kinder interpretations of Lessing.  I guess it’s possible to publish anything, if you say it’s about Doris Lessing.  Honestly!  Writers.  (I really have nothing against Diski,  but this book…ugh.)

Blathering: The Future of Social Media

Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.

Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.

This year I’ve been re-evaluating my use of social media. In the last year, I have lost interest in the internet. Power to the people—but the people are not always knowledgeable.  Absurdities are tweeted,  marketers mine Facebook and other platforms, and ads pop up everywhere.  For what it’s worth, I can read international newspapers and journals online. For what it’s worth…will it be worth it in the end?

The internet started as a way of building community, or so they say.  But a lot of good it has done it:  it  has destroyed public libraries. Many people plugged into the net have problems evaluating sources:  Wikipedia and even sketchy results of Google searches have taken the place of  scholarly books, reference books,  journals, etc..  In England, hundreds of libraries have closed, as fewer people use them.  In the U.S., the use of libraries has also declined. According to a recent Pew research study , only 44 percent of Americans visited a library or bookmobile over the last 12 months. Three years ago that figure was 53 percent.  On the rare occasions when I visit university libraries, I do not see  students reading books. All are glued to their computers. Shouldn’t university students be expected to read books?

Social media give everyone a voice. But books are not, as far as I can see, improving as a result of publishers’ mining data from consumer reviews. If anything, worse.  And many journalists, critics, and writers–and who can blame them, since the internet has destroyed their work?– are bitter about social media. In Howard Jacobson’s savage satire, Zoo Time,  the hero, Guy, a novelist, is furious that  his books are out of print.  His publisher is depressed because he is expected to ask Guy to “twit” and “blag.” (Tweet and blog.)  But Guy wants to tell him that”the blog is yesterday,” and that the blame lies on “myBlank and shitFace and whatever else was persuading the unRead to believe everybody had a right to his opinion.”

Well, Jacobson is very harsh,  though I know what he means about the unRead, and doubtless he considers me one. I can hardly say much against blogs, since I have one. Generally, the blog is a “no-harm” medium.  It can be used as a diary, an op/ed page, a collection of thoughts, even as a site for polished essay. (The latter is rare.) But I want to assert that mine is a book journal with informal notes about books:  I am not writing reviews. Very few bloggers are writing reviews. The problem is that the average blogger does believe he or she is writing  reviews.  And now that marketers have colonized blogs–I   turned down a review copy yesterday, of an e-book, not even a real book! –the “review” factor is even shakier than it used to be.

In general, bloggers read short books and earnestly, or whimsically, as the case may be, tell you their opinion of the book.  I find blogs very skimmable, but in recent years have read fewer. Every few weeks I read the bloggers who comment on my blogs, and then I leave comments, because it’s an obligation. But I am still as unconnected to other bloggers as Hillary Clinton was to the electorate.  Deep down, I know  that most of this internet writing is a waste of time, and that Bernie should have been the Democratic candidate.

Some bloggers love to read, but have no background in literature and are completely baffled by classics .  If you don’t often read blogs, you may be surprised, as my husband was the other night, to find a blogger declaring  Herman Mellville’s short novel Billy Budd “worthless”  and giving it a  D-. Yup, some bloggers actually grade books or work on the movie review star stystem.  The thing I’ve noticed is, when bloggers read classics, they often pick a short book,  presumably so they can tick it off a list–they’ve done Melville–without dong any real work.

My husband was so fascinated by this nervy blogger that he and I decided to write short fake  reviewettes by an imaginary cranky blogger.   Here they are.


Melville’s Billy Budd.  86 pages. ZERO STARS. “Could have 1 star if he cut out all the stuff about sailing. It’s crap! Don’t read Moby Dick.  I bet it’s crap!  Where’s Gordon Lish?”

Henrry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  121 pages.  1 star.  “James can’t write. Boy, was this a waste of time.  Crap!”

Colette’s Gigi.   68 pages.   1 star.  “God, what crap. I don’t care about the characters. Read at a blog that C was an immoral lesy.”

Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing.  208 pages.  ZERO STARS.  “The worst book I’ve ever read.  Everybody pretends they  read The Golden Notebook but they don’t. Jenny Diski hated Lessing, and SHE wrote short books. so knows.  A bitch online said Doris Lessing satirizes TGIS in The Golden Notebook but  she’s so full of crap. I hate feminists.I voted for Trump. I will never read another book by a woman.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  838 pages.  ZERO STARS.   “I didn’t like Oblonsky, Levin, Dolly, Kitty, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Nikolai Dmitrievich, or Princess Betsy.  Pevear and Volokhonsky are bad translators.”

Okay, you get the idea?

I’m going to look back at all the hours I’ve spent online–and wonder.

Trollope’s Doctor Thorne

doctor-thorne-trollope-41fcbtvv3tl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I cannot tell you how much I love Trollope’s Doctor Thorne.  Have I ever had more fun reading a book? If you want to read a charming, lightning-fast comedy, this is your novel.

Trollope’s brilliant six-book Barsetshire series (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) was tremendously popular in the 19th century, and is, I would imagine, still his most popular series.  I enthusiastically recommend beginning with Doctor Thorne,  the third, because Trollope is always better when he writes long than when he writes short, and you don’t have to read them in order. (Of course some of you will read the short just to cross him off your list.)   Doctor Thorne is light, bright, and entertaining, and though the novel has its serious, even dark, moments, it is not grounded in darkness like two of his masterpieces, He Knew He Was Right (which I wrote about here), or Phineas Redux (which I wrote about here).

doctor-thorne-trollope-51nmupbvcxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Trollope had reservations about the best-selling Doctor Thorne.  He wrote, “The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot,–which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale,–is that which will raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment.”

Well, it is true he has a good plot, but character is the most important element.  Get past the opening melodramatic pages, which provide background,  and the characters are brilliantly-drawn, the dialogue scintillating, the satire of the aristocrats is hilarious, and the writing much more sophisticated than Trollope is ever given credit for.   David Skilton wrote, “…one of the  most remarkable things about Doctor Thorne is how little he exploits the sentimental or sensational possibilities…”

The book revolves around marriage, as so many of Trollope’s books do.  The strong-minded, plainspoken Doctor Thorne has a successful medical practice, and a happy home life  with his orphaned niece, Mary Thorne, the daughter of his dead ne’er-do-well brother, Thomas.  Years ago Thomas seduced a beautiful lower-class woman, Mary Scatcherd, whom he despicably pursued after he learned she was engaged to a tradesman.  When Mary’s stonemason brother, Roger Scatcherd, found out she was pregnant, he killed Thomas in a rage.  Doctor Thorne felt some sympathy for Roger, and arranged for his defense: Roger served six months in prison.  And Doctor Thorne has raised their niece, not thinking it prudent to tell Roger that his sister’s baby lived.

trollope-doctor-thorne-oxford-51fx2zh7x5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Mary does not know her own identity, though, as Doctor Thorne’s niece, she assumes she is good enough to marry anyone.  When Frank Gresham, the 21-year-old heir of a great estate, flirts with her and says, at first half joking, in a spontaneous moment while walking with her at his coming-of-age party, that he loves her, one of his sisters, Augusta, overhears him and tattles to their aunt, Countess de Courcy (a ridiculous woman right out of Jane Austen). Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, agrees with the countess that Frank must marry money.  Why?  Because her husband, Squire Greshem, is in debt, partly because of Lady Arabella.  He has sold much of their land, has borrowed huge amounts from Sir Roger Scatcherd, and the estate is mortgaged.

Mary meditates on whether or not she should marry Frank. He repeatedly asks her.   Of course she loves him; of course she knows that Lady Arabella opposes the match.  And so she  ruminates,

If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualised quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

And she answered the question. Absolute, intrinsic, acknowledged, individual merit must give it to its possessor, let him be whom, and what, and whence he might. So far the spirit of democracy was strong with her. Beyond this it could be had but by inheritance, received as it were second-hand, or twenty-second-hand. And so far the spirit of aristocracy was strong within her. All this she had, as may be imagined, learnt in early years from her uncle; and all this she was at great pains to teach Beatrice Gresham, the chosen of her heart.

Mary is such a good soul!

The more adamantly Lady Arabella opposes the match, the more Frank is determined to stick to Mary.  He is ordered on a visit to his Aunt de Courcy’s castle to woo one of the most comical, intelligent characters in the book, Miss Dunstable, a thirtyish heiress to the” Ointment of Lebanon” business.  Frank believes she must be 40, and doesn’t find her attractive, but she is a smart conversationalist. She teases him out of his flirtation–she is used to everyone trying to marry her–and becomes one of his best friends.  She reminds him throughout the book that love of Mary Thorne is worth more than marrying an heiress he doesn’t love.  Without Miss Dunstble, it is probable that he might not have married Mary.

There is not just a marriage plot; there is a potential in-law plot.  It is not uncommon for potential in-laws to oppose a marriage.  In-law problems are usually treated as comical, but very often they are not comical at all.  And Lady Arabella is especially vicious in her treatment of Mary:  she bans Mary from the house, and prevents her daughter Beatrice from meeting Mary even at other people’s houses.  Beatrice and Mary, educated together, have been inseparable for years.  This is very painful for Mary and angers Doctor Thorne.  The whole village knows Mary is no longer welcome at Greshamsbury.

Sir Roger Scatcherd also plays a big role in this novel.  After six months in prison, he manages slowly to get on in life and eventually makes a fortune building railways.   He does not know that Mary is his niece, but he knows Doctor Thorne.  And his sweet wife, very uncomfortable as a “Lady,” has Mary over on a visit and loves her, not knowing the relationship.  And their sickly son, Louis, is like a shadow figure of Frank, drinks hard, has no morals, but also likes Mary and proposes to her.

As for Trollope’s writing, Adam Gopnik put it well in his article, “Trollope Trending,” in The New Yorker (May 4, 2015):

Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.

Trollope is a pleasure, but I don’t regard him as a guilty pleasure.   I think he is a better writer than most people admit.  I promised yesterday I would point out some of his high-flown (!) rhetorical figures of speech. Trollope was a great fan of Cicero the orator, whom he wrote a life of, and Cicero had an influence on his prose.

The two sentences below illustrate parallelism: the elements of the sentence are repeated in the same order.

There, in one big best bedroom, looking out to the north, lay Sir Louis Scatcherd, dying wretchedly.  There, in the other big, best bedroom, looking out to the south, had died the other baronet about a twelvemonth since, and each a victim to the same sin.

And here is an example of chiasmus,  a reversing of the order of words in corresponding pairs of phrases.

“I hope so.  I have had much doubt about this, and have been sorely perplexed; but now I do hope so.”

Trollope is not as flamboyant as Dickens, whose knowledge of rhetoric astounds all of us, but he is clever,  consistent, and positively Ciceronian at times.