Why Can’t I Take an Urban Vacation? & Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest

Did you spend July slapping deerflies and reading on the dock?   Is it time for an urban vacation?  I considered going to New York:  I wanted to see Mandy Patinkin  in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, a  musical based on War and Peace. Unfortunately, Patinkin canceled his three-week run as Pierre after a Twitter hubbub, and now the show is closing!

Oh, well, if I went to New York, I’d buy too many books anyway.

And I have not read all the Penguins I bought on my trip to London last year.

The three most likely Penguin candidates for my August reading are:  Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love Bennett!), Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing (he’s an Iowa writer!), and Travels with Herodotus (I’m a Herodotus fan!)

I am not sure why I bought a novel with mountain-climbing in it.  That will  stay on the shelf.

No urban vacation for me till they’re all read.


Ann Beattie’s new book, The Accomplished Guest, is one of my favorite short story collections of the year.  I thought the Man Booker Prize judges might consider it, but, alas! they did not include any books on my list.  (And that’s why I’m not Ladbrokes.)

I’m a longtime fan of Beattie, who has chronicled the quirks of American life since the simultaneous publication in 1976 of Distortions, her first collection of stories, and Chilly Scenes of Winter, her first novel.  Critics used to label her a minimalist, but her  lyrical style has evolved over the years, and her elegant stories have grown longer and fuller.

Beattie’s voice can be flamboyant: she balances her canny perceptions with witty dialogue.

In my favorite story, “Hoodie in Xanadu,” Beattie’s originality and charm dazzle.  The narrator, a flower arranger in her sixties in Key West, becomes acquainted with her eccentric, obese, agoraphobic neighbor.  She has signed for packages for him for years, but they haven’t chatted.  Finally he invites her for tea:  he has turned his front room into Xanadu, which she describes as an “enormous, vibrant, multicolored tent.  The materials were radiant:  some sparkled with tiny mirrors that threw off light…”  And he rents it out to celebrities for private parties.  He asks her to do the flowers for her

Here is one of Beattie’s joyful, funny observations when he tells her she mustn’t tell anyone about the celebrities.

In the second before he whispered their names, I wondered: Might they be the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit? The first name, the woman’s, I recognized, but I wasn’t sure I could pick her out of a lineup. The man’s name meant nothing to me, but he was apparently the husband.

Beattie is also astute about the vicissitudes of old age.   In “The Indian Uprising,” the kind narrator, Maude, a writer, takes Franklin, her 71-year-old retired English professor, to lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  It is snowing, and he is not in good health–he has had a triple bypass and has diabetes –but she helps him put on his velcro shoes, and after closing one with a paperclip, out they go.

Franklin mocks his old age. He tells her,

“An old man like me, and I’ve got no scarf, no hat, only gloves I bought from a street vendor, the same day I had a roasted chestnut and bought another one for a squirrel. I can tell you which one of us was happier.” He was holding the crook of my arm. “Only you would take me out in the snow for a meal. Promise me one thing: You won’t make me watch you make a snowball and throw it in a wintry way. You can make an anecdote of that request and use it later at my memorial service.”

At the restaurant, she sees her ex-husband sitting with a pretty woman.  And then she faints after she spots blood on Franklin’s foot.  Much to her chagrin, her ex- and his girlfriend come to her aid, but at least they help persuade Franklin go to the hospital. He steals a sombrero  on his way out.  On the phone he claims that they want to amputate his legs, and he says, “You’re the ugly stepsister who crammed my foot into the slipper.”  After Franklin’s death a few months later, there is no memorial service, and she turns  this  remembrance into a story.

The other stories are equally entertaining and unexpected.  In “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card,” the 80-year-old narrator, Pookie, accompanies  Pru, a bubbly sorority girl who runs her errands,  and Pru’s friend Carrie to a coffeehouse where  Carrie’s bankrupt  mother sells her Avon makeup.  In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” John attends a complicated family wedding .  In “The Cloud,”  Candace visits her Uncle Sterling on a business trip, and learns he secretly married a young Hispanic woman who, it turned out,  preferred her ex-.

This is great fun, a good place to start reading her work. I very much enjoyed the 13 stories and could go on and on…but this is enough!

Beattie has won an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story form.

Two Great Reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life & Janwillem van de Wetering’s “The Mind-Murders”

Edouard Vuillard’s “Madame Hessel Reading at Amfréville,” 1906

I have read many, many stunning books this summer.  In July it was so hot that I did very little bicycling or hiking:  I stayed indoors and read 13 books.  Did I write about all 13?  No.

Here are brief reviews of two great reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life and Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Mind-Murders.  And look later this week for short reviews of Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest and Victoria Redel’s After Everything.

A POIGNANT MEMOIR OF POETRY.  In Poetry Will Save Your Life, the poet Jill Bialosky refines the popular biblio-memoir and takes it in a new direction.  Instead of describing her favorite fiction, Bialosky is in love with poetry. She pairs her beautifully-detailed  personal vignettes with poems that help her parse emotions and experiences. Each poem is followed by a short literary analysis.  And it is a joy to discover or rediscover poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and many more.

Bialosky, who has also written novels and a memoir of her sister’s suicide,  is a master of lyricism.  Her imagery is crystalline and perfectly-wrought, and yet her style manages to be both evocative and earthy. She writes about her girlhood, college days, building a life in  New York, and her compassion for  her aging mother.  Many of the short chapters are almost novelistic. I told my husband,  “If Betty Smith had been a poet,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would read like this.” (Only in Bialosky’s case, the tree would have grown in Cleveland.  And in my husband’s case, he didn’t care where the tree grew.)

Bialosky grew up in the Midwest with her beautiful, warm widowed mother and two affectionate sisters,  one of whom tragically committed suicide. She discovered poetry “when my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hudson read us Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’.”  Later, poetry helped her cope with her move to New York, her doubts that she would ever marry, and her difficulty in starting a family.  Poetry is the constant in her life.

In the preface, she  says poems are “like a map to an unknown city.”

For years I’ve flagged poems in individual volumes or anthologies with paper clips and Post-its. I have xeroxed poems and stuck them on my refrigerator or on bulletin boards. I have collected poems as someone else might collect stamps or coins or works of art—amazed by the many human experiences, large and small, that find their meeting place in poems.

As she walks on the beach alone in December, feeling lonely because her son is away at college, she thinks of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.”  In the early ’80s, when she is overwhelmed by the anonymity of New York City, she remembers a poem by Gerard Stern, “The Red Coal,” which tells the story of two poets in Pairs who are walking and talking about Hart Crane and Apollinaire.  When she loses hope that she will fall in love, she recites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where, and Why.”

I was moved by her description in “Legacy” of her disappointed mother, who had thought she would be a happily married housewife and was disoriented by widowhood.  In the chapter “Legacy,” Bialosky writes,

After my mother’s divorce from her second husband, my sisters and I try to push my mother. We urge her to take classes, find a job, and for a time she works as a receptionist, sells real estate, then works in retail, but there is a layer of fatigue and resentment underneath it all. It’s as if she feels she’s still entitled to the life she was meant, but there’s no husband at home taking care of her.

I wept, because I was thinking about my mother, who died four years ago.  She too lost her dream after my father divorced her.  She lived a full life, but was alone.  She never remarried. She once told me the best days of her life were when my siblings and I were small and we were all together.  It was heartbreaking.  She worked at menial jobs  and office jobs (I was very upset when I saw her working as a cashier at a drugstore) even though she had a bachelor’s degree.   Bialosky compares our mothers expectations in the ’60s of staying home with  our own generations’ assumptions that we would work.  Strange how just a few decades can make a difference.  Reading Lucille Clifton’s “Fury” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”  empowers us in that chapter.

A very moving book, with something for everybody.  It could be read for comfort, or as a textbook for a comp class or a poetry class.

I will certainly reread it.

A BRILLIANT MYSTERY. The Dutch crime fiction writer  Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) is famous for his Amsterdam Cops series. He had the ideal background for writing quirky novels:   for many years he was a police officer in Amsterdam, and he was also a Zen Buddhist monk.

In his Amsterdam Cops series, there is often a hint of Zen:   Detective-Adjutant Grijpstra, an overweight, middle-aged, unhappily married man,  makes improbable connections between seemingly unrelated events.  His mind works differently from those of other cops. And Sergeant de Gier, his dapper, moody, contemplative, sexy younger partner, is also a gifted cop, who is of an age that he always gets a girl.

The Mind-Murders is one of the strangest in the series, a police procedural with a nod to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop.   What happens if a murder has been committed, but no laws have been broken?  Durings a disturbance at a bar, the inebriated Mr. Fortune, a publisher,   attacks two overzealous young cops with his cane. They throw him in the river, and he fends them off with a cane, preferring drowning to being saved.  Grijpstra rebukes the cops for harrassing an invalid  but soon learns from the bar owner that Mr. Fortune had his reasons for getting drunk.  All of the furniture in his house, down to the nuts and bolts, have disappeared, and Mrs. Fortune with it. Fjrijpstra has a hunch that Mr. Fortune murdered his wife, and soon learns of a money motive that could just as easily have inspired the reverse.  And they do find a corpse in the trunk of a German businessman’s Mercedes?  Are the crimes connected?  Yes, by a couple of details that could easily elude the police.

Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real


I missed the so-called” Latin American boom” of the ’60s and ’70s. I was not seduced by magic realism.  In fact, I did not finish Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude on a beach vacation in Mexico where I got the worst sunburn of my life.  ( I wasn’t happy till I found a bookstore in Veracruz.)  It wasn’t until  years later that I discovered the surreal stories of Borges.  Then I fell in love with  Garcia Marquez,  Julio Cortazar, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz.

I realized recently I have read only a  few Latin American women writers; in the last decade, only the brilliant Isabel Allende and Angelica Gorodischer, the Argentine science fiction writer who has been translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, come to mind.

And then I found this stunning anthology, Short Stories by Latin American Women:  The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata.  It includes the work of 31 writers, among them Allende, Clarice Lispector, and  Josefina Pla.   The stories are so marvelous that I tried to find their books.  Very few of these wrtiers have been translated.

Men have traditionally dominated Latin American literature.  And I wonder if that is still true of the translators.

This book is a gem:  at the end, there are short biographies of all the authors and translators. Isabel Allende writes in the preface:  “For women in South America, setting down a short story is like screaming out loud; it breaks the rules, violates the code of silence into which we were born.  Through these stories, each author selected by Dr. Zapata shouts out defiantly and reveals our experience to the world.”

Allende’s short story, “An Act of Vengeance” is my favorite. Her always colorful, poetic language is interwoven seamlessly with a plot made vivid by magic realism.    The style reminds me of that of Louise Erdrich, and the opening sentence is worth the price of the book.

On the glorious noonday when Dulce Rosa Orellano was crowned with the jasmines of Carnival Queen, the mothers of the other candidates murmured that it was unfair for her to win just because she was the only daughter of the most powerful man in the entire province, Senator Anselmo Orellano.

Dulce Rosa is beautiful, not so much physically as for her charm, grace, and infectious happiness.  Tales of her beauty have spread, and poets in distant cities praise her. Even the guerilla Tadeo Cespedes  has heard of her, but never dreams he’ll meet her.  And then Tadeo raids the town of Santa Theresa with 120 men, and kills  the senator, who is the last man standing.  The sight of Dulce Rosa drives Tadeo into a frenzy, and he rapes her. As she washes off his semen, she vows she will get revenge.  Thirty years go by…and the plot twists and turns.

In  “Culinary Lesson,” Roario Castellanos’ humorous monologue is reminiscent of a Dorothy Parker story mixed with the musings in Sue Kaufman’s feminist classic, The Diary of a Mad Housewife.  The heroine cannot cook, and cannot understand the cookbooks, and I empathize.  In Rosario Ferre’s “A Poisoned Tale,” a fairy tale book turns out to be lethal for an evil stepmother.  In “Blame the Tlaxcaltes,” a wretched housewife lives in two different times, with two different husbands, and only the maid understands she does not belong in the present.

I could go on, on, and on, but you’ll have to read it.  I  am giving it to everyone for Christmas.

And it’s Women in Translation Month.  Finally, something I can get behind!

Alternative Culture & Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

By Vanessa Bell

I procrastinate.  Every time I look at my blog I think, Oh, no! Must I really write a  900-word post about Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital?

I’m a typical American “lady” blogger…just wordy.

I used to feel like a member of an alternative culture, or a girl group. But blogging isn’t as much fun as it used to be: it is more mainstream now that Netgalley offers us the same review copies which traditional media review.  Our charm and quirks are lost in our earnest plot summaries.  We even have our own blogging rituals, like Women in Translation Month in August and All Virago, All August.

Twelve of my blogger friends have stopped blogging in recent years. I miss Nancy at Silver Threads, who wrote lively posts on her reading of the classics and older books, and  Tom at A Common Reader, who reviewed literature in translation and crime fiction.

And now  I Prefer Reading is tired and has gone on break.  She wrote,

I’ve been feeling less enthusiastic about blogging for a few months now. I’ve been watching quite a bit of Book Tube & I like the idea of maybe a Book Haul & a monthly wrap up instead of longer reviews with a bit of Literary Rambling thrown in. I don’t know but I need a break to think about it all.

It is no small thing to write posts, columns, or reviews as a hobby.  But mainstream publications no longer deride book blogs, presumably because we are no longer  a threat.

And so, while reflecting on the changing “alternative”  blog culture, I will write very briefly about Kawabata’s The Old Capital, set in Kyoto and published in 1962.

In this spare, elegant novel, Kawabata describes the consolation of nature and its changing depictions in design in post-war Kyoto: can  traditional kimono design, hand-weaving, and other crafts survive industrialization and the shattering changes wrought by World War II?

In The Old Capital, the  heroine, Chieko, is an ardent nature lover:  she feels bliss at the sight of the first violets of spring, the blossoms on the weeping cherry trees, and the gigantic camphor trees.  She also marvels over the details of the joyous seasonal festivals she attends and the elaborate ceremonies at temples.

Chieko lives with her adoptive parents, her father, Takichuro, a kimono designer, and her practical mother, a housewife.  But Takichuro’s dry goods business is foundering and he believes  has lost his talent for design.  Chieko gives him a Paul Klee book, which inspires him to do an abstract obi design.  But the talented young weaver he hires to weave the obi is  harsh in his criticism of the new design.  Only Chieko believes in her father.  (And with reason.)

Chieko could not ask for more loving parents, but she  is curious about her origins. Her parents  tell her they kidnapped her (her mother says, “Your real parents were probably crazed with grief” ).  She says, “Tell me the truth.  I was a foundling, wasn’t I?” But her mother feels the pain of abandonment would harm her daughter.

Then by chance at a festival Chieko  meets a woman who looks just like her.   Naeko is her identical twin, and is overjoyed to find her  sister, whom she knew her father had abandoned.  But Naeko, a laborer, does not want to transcend class boundaries, and says it is enough to have met her once.  But they do see each other a few times, and their bond is cemented  via their love of nature and a modern obi design.

A gorgeous book!  This is very spare, but I loved it.  The translation is by J. Martin Holman.

And I’m well under 900 words.   I can breathe again.

Workshop Woes & Reading K. M. Peyton’s Flambards

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

In Bleak House, a satire of the judicial system, Dickens warns us to be wary of time-and-soul-wasting cases and complaints.

Although it is not quite Dickens, I was fascinated by an article in the Iowa City Press Citizen about a rejected writer.   Sixty-eight-year-old Dan Thomson has filed a federal complaint accusing the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop of age discrimination.

Although there are hundreds of MFA programs, Thomson applied only to Iowa, where  800 to 1,000 people apply for the 25 slots every year.  Graduates of the program include award-winning writers T. C. Boyle,  Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Eleanor Catton, Donald Justice, and A. M. Homes.  Thomson believes he should have been accepted.

The university says age is not a factor: the applications  go directly to the Graduate School, while the Workshop receives only the writing samples.

But the statistics do favor the young: most of the graduate students are in their twenties (but then that is always true). Between 2013 and 2017,  approximately half of those accepted  were between the ages of 18 and 25.  In the last five years, no applicants age 51 or older were accepted. The  median age for all applicants was 36, and the median age for accepted applicants was 34½.  (Read The Iowa City Press Citizen article for more information.)

Well, I thought: perhaps there is age discrimination. But the real question is:  does Thomson have talent?

I checked out the Amazon sample of Thomson’s self-published novel, The Candidate. Uh oh.  He is writing genre fiction, which is not a good fit for the very literary Iowa.

And the book could use some work.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter.  At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king size bed sipping Martinis.  Jane asked, “So what is next for you, Norman?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving, or I will give it more chemical inducements.”

The writing is clunky and cliche-ridden.  I am not saying nobody would read it, but I would not.   Phrases like “a face like Ingrid Bergman” must go.  A few hyphens would not be amiss.

Iowa is not for everybody. So why not pursue another program?  Studying al fresco is by far the most fun:  Thomson could  pick up as much at a  summer writers’ conference as in two years of critiques by Millennial students.   Writers of literary and genre fiction of all ages are treated with equal respect at these conferences.

Let me add here that I took a couple of great fiction writing classes as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa.  Anybody could sign up!

Great Bedtime Reading:  Flambards

So what’s on my bedstand?  K. M. Peyton’s award-winning Flambards trilogy.  I decided to reread it after watching the stunning TV series on DVD.

The trilogy is set in the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I.   In Flambards, the first book, the  heroine, Christina Parsons, an orphaned heiress, goes to Flambards to live with her equine-obsessed uncle. He is crippled and lives vicariously through his oldest son, Mark, a keen horseman.  He hopes Christina will marry Mark, so the money will go into the estate, but she shrewdly realizes Mark is a womanizer and a bully

But she prefers his witty, kind, aviation-mad second son, Will, who  falls off his horse and breaks his leg and then deliberately walks on it before it heals to avoid the hated riding (he fears horses) so he can become a pilot. Ironically, he becomes (slightly) crippled like his cruel father,  though not as badly, and his stiff leg does interfere with flying.  But Will adjusts.

Christina and Will

In the second novel, The Edge of the Cloud, Christina and Will move to London and marry.  Christina works as a receptionist at a hotel, and Will is a  mechanic, engineer, and stunt-flier.  Then World War I breaks out and Will, a pilot, crashes.

The third novel, Flambards in Summer, describes Christina’s return as a widow to Flambards, where she is determined to succeed as a farmer.  Christina is self-reliant but devastated by the loss of Will, irritated by the class snobbery at Flambards,  and determined to succeed though the men are at war and she has trouble finding farm laborers. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is more determined than ever to renovate the estate. And she loves horses, so one of the first things she does is buy a horse no one else will take a chance on.

And then at a farm sale, the past fuses with the present.  She sees a car for sale, and vividly flashes back to driving with Will.

Someday I shall drive to sales in my own motor-car,” Christina said to the smart Ford. It would not be for preference, only to show status, and her success with wheat. Will had taught her to drive a motor-car. A picture of Will, leaning out of Sandy’s Model-T with his arm stretched out to pull her up, his dark eyes laughing, cap on back to front, came into her mind very suddenly, very vividly. For a brief instant Will was as near and as real as he once had been in fact. Christina gripped the horse’s halter and shut her eyes, but the dream was past almost before it had come. Her mind reached to recall the vision, but it was irrevocable, dissolved like thistledown.

I love all three of these books.  A fourth, Flambards Divided, was published in 1981 after the TV series was filmed.  I will have to find my copy.