Lysistrata Deconstructed: A New War of the Sexes

Do we want to wake up every morning and read a list of liberal men accused of sexual harassment?

Sorry, it gets ridiculous.

Here’s where I draw the line:  Garrison Keillor.

Yes, I have my sexual harassment stories, of course, but how can Keillor be fired before the investigation of harassment?   I hate Twitter, and would never post at #metoo, but before I proceed in this partial defense of famous men, let me share my worst story.  Call it #whohasn’tbeen?

I was at a job interview.  I sat for an hour in the waiting room.  I was told to pop across the street for a physical, because the interviewers were too busy to see me yet.  The doctor listened to my heart, lungs, etc.  And then suddenly my shirt was off and he told me to run in place.   Before I left he said, “Let’s keep this between ourselves.”

I felt disconnected and rattled, to say the least.  I  didn’t mention the physical, because it was not the kind of thing you chat about at a corporate interview.

Was I surprised that I didn’t get the job?

After this incident, I became a master of the word “No.”  It is very effective.

The daily reports of sexual harassment began in October in Hollywood. Yes, sexual harassment abounds in Hollywood.  No surprise there.  I’ve always understood Hollywood is founded on sex.  Youth, beauty,  breast implants, plastic surgery, tight abs, waxed chests…  With all this, I’m amazed there’s talent, too.

Hollywood is so far removed from the realm of my experience that I paid little attention to the accusations until the newspapers began to go after writers.  I do know writers.

For instance, Glenn Thrush, a New York Times reporter in Washington, was fired after he was accused of sexual harassment, i.e., groping young women colleagues at bars.  Let me get my head around this.  There’s a lot of groping at bars.  And so he lost a book deal with Random House:  he and a female colleague had a contract to write a  book about Trump.   The women who complained, as I understand it, were able to fend him off.  Surely the corporation should have issued a warning  before firing him.

Which begs the question: Should a person be fired for being an asshole?  If that’s the case,  I have a long list.  But the problem is, some assholes are talented, smart, and powerful.   In a strange way, they are our friends; they are allies.  Not personal friends, but fellow friends of  literature, or friends of art, or friends of democracy.  You don’t have to like all your friends.

Every day, there are many new names.  So many names.  Yesterday it was 78-year-old John Casey, the National Book Award-winning author of Spartina and a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.   A young MFA graduate  said he inappropriately touched women on the shoulders, back, and even the butt at readings.  Ms. X, I don’t know if your accusations are true, but that generation of men is like that. They were not raised by feminists.   My advice:  Frown, move away, move their hand away,  say No, and that will probably do the job.   He’s a great writer.  Don’t take that away from us.

And today another old man, Garrison Keillor, 75,  the humorist, writer, and creator of A Prairie Home Companion, has been fired by  Minnesota Public Radio.  He is under investigation because of a colleague’s accusation.  MPR has banned The Writers’ Almanac and reruns of A Prairie Home Companion.  I am not a fan of A Prairie Home Companion, by the way, but whatever the accusation, it should be illegal to fire someone before the investigation is concluded.

And don’t you think the Republicans are thrilled to see the Left divided, and their liberal opponents in the media crushed?  The lists distract from the destruction of our society and our country.  And the attention is focused on sex, instead of the very important elections and egregious destruction of our country.

Obviously, we need better sexual harassment training and assertiveness training in the workplace. But, more important, we need to elect liberal/radical women in politics, fund Planned Parenthood t, keep abortion safe and legal, assure equal pay for equal work, reverse climate change…

That list goes on.

A Giveaway of Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy

Would anyone like my extra copy of Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy?  She is a stunning novelist and memoirist:  I blogged about her novels A Favorite of the Gods here and A Compass Error here.  Then I inexplicably lost my copy of  A Legacy, and, after ordering an inexpensive copy, I found the original.  So often the way.

Do leave a comment if you’d like it!  You can read the Goodreads description of this well-reviewed novel  here.

Pamela Hansford Johnson & a New Biography

The brilliant 20th-century writer Pamela Hansford Johnson has fallen out of fashion.  Her books are out-of-print in the U.S.

But I am an ardent fan.  One winter day in 2009, while browsing at a university library, I found a copy of her novel,  An Impossible Marriage. I admit, I’d confused her with Pamela Frankau, but the error was serendipitous.  I scrawled later in my book journal:

I started reading Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage in the car and continued to read it till bedtime. Fascinating Virago-like material, the story of a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who knows enough to dump a young man with whom she is sexually compatible but not emotionally;  but then makes the same mistake with a beautiful man 14 years older than herself. That whole experience of falling in love at first sight: can that ever turn out well? The horror: it usually involves falling for someone one believes  superior to oneself (and groveling ). Johnson describes the affair with compassion and insight.

Since then, I have read 19 of her 27 novels.  I especially love the superb Helena trilogy (which I blogged about here), Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.  In these witty, elegant, addictive novels, the narrator,  Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes his fraught relationship with his histrionic stepmother, Helena, from boyhood through middle age. The cast of characters is so vivid that one day I absent-mindedly chatted about them at the dinner table, as if they were my friends.

And, lo and behold!  I was reading a book by Johnson when on Nov. 3 the TLS ran a review of Deirdre David’s new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson:  A Writing Life.  (And that’s why it’s dangerous to read the TLS: too many fascinating books.)

Miranda Seymour writes,

Despite the fact that Pamela Hansford Johnson is now the subject of three biographies – of which Deirdre David’s is by far the most insightful – this once celebrated writer remains an intriguingly neglected figure. Most admirers of This Bed Thy Centre (the debut novel with which Johnson sparked a sensation in 1935, at the age of twenty-three) and The Unspeakable Skipton (1959; a maliciously witty account of literary skulduggery and lofty pretensions, set in Johnson’s beloved Bruges) might struggle to recall the titles of others of her novels. It comes as a surprise to learn that there are twenty-seven of them. Most are out-of-print.

My copy of the biography arrived in the mail today.  I haven’t shrieked so much since I found the huge Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary in a musty used bookstore.

I do hope it’s worth it!

More later.

The Penguin Women Writers Series & Forgotten Women’s Books We Love

 We love Virago, Persephone, and the Feminist Press–and now Penguin is publishing a Women Writers Series!  I read in The Guardian that the Booker Prize-winning writer Penelope Lively and Booker-shorlisted writer Kamila Shamsie chose the first four titles.

Lively selected two of my personal favorites, Mary McCarthy’s 1971 satire, Birds of America, which  skewers both American innocence and hypocrisy at home and abroad, and E. Nesbit’s adult novel, The Lark, a charming comedy about two women who start a flower business.  (I wrote about these two novels here and here.)  And Kamila Shamsie recommended two books I look forward to reading, Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, a memoir, and Ismat Chughtai’s Lifting the Veil, a collection of essays.

Reading the article made me think about great women’s books I’d like to see revived.

I love Nancy Hale:  her engrossing  novel Dear Beast (1959),  a kind of tougher American version of D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book; and her two brilliant memoirs, A New England Girlhood, about growing up the daughter of two artists, and Life in the Studio, a memoir of her parents inspired by the relics she found while clearing out their studios after their deaths.

Hale was the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker.  She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale; the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country; the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers); and a descendant of Nathan Hale.  All her books are out-of-print.

And I know you-all read a lot of women’s books, too.   What books merit a second look?

Ka by John Crowley, Not Finding Quite What You Want on Black Friday, & Literary Links

The People had stories, but no history; everything that had happened was still happening.
Ka, by John Crowley

The hero of John Crowley’s brilliant new novel,  Ka, is a crow, Dar Oakley, who traverses both the realms of crows and human beings. Dar Oakley is an inquisitive crow, flying farther than most birds, and returning with arcane information about geography and anthropology.  His stories seem fantastic to the other crows, who laugh at him until they finally follow him on a journey.  Dar Oakley is the first crow to give himself a name, and starts the trend of individual naming.

John Crowley is a versatile writer who has won the World Fantasy Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in English.  I am a great fan of his Aegypt, a quartet of novels about philosophy, science, magic, and love. (For more information, follow this  link to Goodreads.)  I also enjoyed his historical novel, Lord Byron’s Novel, in which Bryon’s daughter Ada discovers an unpublished manuscript of a novel by Byron.  But Ka is very different, a kind of prose epic.

On one level,  Ka is an unputdownable story of a talking crow.  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of Dar Oakley.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  This man, who lives in a dystopian near-future, is dying of a new disease.  He has already lost his wife, and has little to live for.  One day he rescued Dar Oakley from the back yard where he found him ill, near death, he thought.

illustration by Melody Newcomb

Crows have a close relationship with humans, in that they follow them to find  food, the remains of animals they have hunted, their crops, or even human corpses.  But Dar Oakley is not just a scavenger. He learns human language. And he accompanies his human friends to the Underworld, or realm of death, where he steals immortality (which is a burden to him).

Because of the gift/curse of immortality, he lives for 2,000 years.  His companions include a shaman named Fox Cap; a monk; and a Native American storyteller.  Dar Oakley outlives them all; he also outlives his mates and his children.  And, in a brilliant reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Dar Oakley travels to the Underworld to attempt to rescue his beloved mate, Kits.  Like Orpheus, he fails.

Crowley’s language is beautiful; there are allusions to Dante, Virgil, and doubtless many other books I do not know.   I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  This is one of my favorite books of the year (and why didn’t it make any award shortlists?).  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.

There are also lovely illustrations by Melody Newcomb.

NOT FINDING WHAT YOU WANT ON BLACK FRIDAY.  It was a lovely day yesterday so I bicycled to Barnes and Noble.

What was on my list?  Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey.  In a way it’s a blessing they didn’t have it, because I have three other translations, and anyway I’m an Iliad person.  But I did find another book I wanted, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic.  When his 81-year-old father signs up for Mendelsohn’s class in the Odyssey at Bard College, their relationship undergoes some changes.

LITERARY LINKS. 

1.  I very much enjoyed the Books of the Year list at the Spectator. There are many lists, but  this is the only list from which I copied several titles.   I also listened to a podcast  called Can Anna Karenina Save Your Life?, in which Sam Leith interviews Viv Groskop about her new book, The Anna Karenina Fix:  Lessons from Russian Literature.  

2  I am a great fan of Mary Wesley, and was very excited to read a review in the TLS of Darling Pol:  The letters of Mary Wesley and Eric Siepmann, 1944–1967 The reviewer very much enjoyed it–and what a relief that was, since I had just been traumatized by a snotty review of one of my favorite books of the year, Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek!

The reviewer LINDSAY DUGUID writes,

Examining the lives of novelists, especially female novelists, has become an accepted way of approaching their work. The facts unfolded in biographies and the feelings expressed in letters can also be found in their fiction, where they appear again and again in different guises. The long and interesting life of Mary Wesley (1912–2002) can be seen as a rich source for the series of novels she wrote in old age, in which familiar themes recur.

I do hope this is published in the U.S. eventually.

A Fantasy-Altering Women’s Fantasy Novel: Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent

In the 1970s, I began to read SF/fantasy. Although I did not care excessively if an SF classic was written by a man or a woman, I wondered, Where are the women?  There was Ursula K. Le Guin, and I enjoyed the dragons of Anne McCaffrey,  but who else?  Surely there were others.

And then a writer at Ms. magazine praised Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, published in 1963 in the UK  and in 1977 in the U.S.  And this strange little feminist fantasy, the first in Gaskell’s Atlan series, changed my idea of the genre’s limits.

The Serpent is witty, unpredictable, and erotic.  Told in the form of a diary, it records the observations and adventures of the heroine, Cija, a clever princess who loves to write. She lives in a tower swarming with nurses, and has no idea of history because her mother, the Dictatress, has told her that men are extinct.  One day a huge person with blue scales and a deep voice climbs up the  tower and chats with Cija, laughing when Cija claims she is a goddess.  Cija assumes this person is just a huge woman. Later, when her mother admits that men exist, Cija doesn’t make the connection.  She is too exhilarated.

“But men are extinct!  Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?”  Was wildly, wildly excited.  Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.

“Darling,” said the Dictatress gravely, “for reasons of our own your nurses and I, purely in your own interests of course, have misled you as to the facts in the world outside your tower….  As many men exist as women.”

Politics and prophecies of doom:  that’s why Cija has been stuck in a tower. General Zerd, it turns out, is the blue scaly person, and he has taken over their country and is taking Cija as a hostage.  Cija is very cross, though thrilled to be out of the tower. She cannot imagine how she, a goddess, could be a hostage.  And travel with the army is uncomfortable.  On the road, her nurse Ooldra tells her she it is her fate to seduce and assassinate Zerd to save her country.  But Cija barely knows what a man is.

Does the plot sound too complex?  You just ride with it.

This is not a  book you read for the style:  Gaskell’s prose is rambling, as in a real diary, sprinkled with comical reflections and lush overwriting, but it is pure enjoyment.  It also has feminist subtexts (nothing too obvious).

As for the seduction of  Zerd, that does not go very well.  Women find Zerd attractive, but she doesn’t get it.  As she says, he is not “pretty.”

And then one day she sees him half undressed and understands.

His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms.  Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!

Cija makes friends (and lovers) with various soldiers, cross-dresses to save her life, rides a large, violent bird (seemingly something prehistoric) and her best friend is Lel, a transgender boy. She has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with a character named Smahil.  She wants to prevent Zerd from invading Atlan, a kind of ideal Atlantis-like country.

Who knew I’d find the concept of a blue scaly man so sexy?  Oddly,  monsters are often sympathetic.  In a later book in the series, Cija has an idyllic relationship with a sentient ape, and it is the most real love she has ever has. There are other monsters in women’s literature:  in one of my favorite books, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban,  a housewife falls in love with a monster who has escaped and taken refuge in her house. And in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, a woman falls in love with an ape she decides to save from her behavioral scientist husband’s experiments.

I do love Gaskell’s books. They just sweep you along.  The average rating at Goodreads is 3.7, but  I gave it a 5-star rating out of nostalgia.  Most of the Goodreads reviewers are rereading:  are we all nostalgic?

On a Dark November Night: Reading in the Cold

Midwestern winters are like bad performance art–long, self-indulgent, and performed against a chicly dark backdrop. When we first moved here, it snowed in early October.  Soon it thawed, but of course it snowed again.  There was snow continually on the ground from December through the end of March.  One day I had to crawl up an icy hill to reach the bus stop.  That was the ultimate humiliation.

Well, it is only November, but it is very cold and dark.  Persephone has gone to the underworld. How do we survive till spirng?  My personal secret is to wall myself up  between stacks of books and bright electric lights.  The 150-watt bulb in the floor lamp sparks memories of natural sunlight, while the books provide an  escape from the gloom.

Although some of my friends like to read hot-weather books in the cold, I strive to generate warmth through more adventurous reading.  Reading about the cold while I lounge in my living room gives me a sense of cheating the elements without actually braving them.  But I’m an eclectic reader, shamelessly curling up with a Regency romance one day and a bone-chilling mountain-climbing novel the next.  In the following list of books for reading in the cold, I’ve tried to compile a judicious blend of cozy comfort reads with stark adventure lit.

For the Cozily Inclined

Everyone loves Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.   There are three movie versions of Little Women, to my knowledge, and a new BBC adaptation is coming to PBS in 2018.  I llong to see the BBC series, but I also wonder, Why doesn’t someone make a TV series of Alcott’s better, shorter novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl?

An Old-Fashioned Girl is one of my favorite books, and for many years I thought I was the only one who had read it. Then,, a friend and I discovered our mutual fondness for this classic.  Both of us read it for the first time at the age of nine, when we wanted to be just like Polly, a poor country mouse who is not swayed by fashion when she visits her rich friend Fanny in the city.  We reread the book and enjoyed a brief revival of “Polly”-ism.

Feminists will approve Polly’s questioning of gender restrictions:  “[One] thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise.  To dress up and parade certain streets for an hour eery day, to stand talking in doorways, or drive out in a fine carriage, was not the sort of exercise she liked, and Fan would take no other.  Indeed, she was so shocked when Polly, one day, proposed a run down the mall, that her friend never dared suggest such a thing again….  She longed for something more lively than a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them.”

Polly’s struggles with poverty and loneliness six years later as she tries to earn her living as a music teacher give this novel an edge over some of Alcott’s more sentimental stories.

Adventure Lit

As a woman who has never undertaken what I’m told is the ultimate female adventure, i.e., childbirth and motherhood, I retain my lifelong fondness for boys’ adventure stories. Thomas Wharton’s Icefields is one of the most haunting and strange of these.

The novel begins on August 17, 1898, when Doctor Edward Byrne slips on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies. He sees a shape in the ice–is it man or angel?–which determines the course of his life.  Wharton’s style is stark, cool, and icily poetic.  He invents a cast of almost mythic Canadian characters, drawn with a few bold strokes:  Elspeth, the genteel manager of a glacier chalet, Freya Becker, the sexy but androgynous journalist, Hal Rawson, the poet who falls in love with Freya, and Trask, the guide who hopes to turn the glacier into a tourist attraction.  Yet the glacier represents an impersonal, mysterious force that transcends human ambitions and desires–and changes them forever.

Victoriana

A friend calls Victorians “the plot-masters of the universe,” and I have to agree no living writer can rival Anthony Trollope’s convoluted plots.  The Way We Live Now, often hailed as Trollope’s masterpiece, is a fat, juicy potboiler that is entertaining and elegantly written.  I curled up on the couch reading far into the night because I couldn’t bear not to know the answers to pressing questions like, “Will Marie Melmotte elope with the drunken Sir Felix?  Will the American divorcee Mrs. Hurtle get her man?”  Scandal buffs will be fascinated by the financial maneuvers of Marie’s father, the richest man in London.

Golden Age Detective Fiction

Reading  Golden Age Detective fiction is at the top of my list for escapes from the first glimmering of wintry weather.  There is something soothing about a murder investigation,  especially with a discerning English detective at the helm.  The detective interviews people and finds clues, but all violence is off the page.  There are cottages, manors, London flats, fens, helpful butlers…and other elements that make it relaxing.

I recommend the following, and have provided links to my posts about them:

Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery

Freeman Wills Croft’s Antidote to Murder

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

Happy Thanksgiving!  Don’t catch a cold!