Lady Macbeth at the Bookstore & Favorite Novels Set in Academe

Note green pedals.

I rode our “city bike” to the bookstore, because my bike is in the shop.   This old clunker has a creaking chain, slipping gears, and black rubber handlebar grips that mysteriously rub off on my hands. Note the green plastic pedals:  the neighborhood shop had no metal replacements. When an optimistic mechanic/RAGBRAI veteran offered to rebuild the bike, I had to say no because it was too expensive.

I arrived at Barnes and Noble with blackened hands. As Lady Macbeth said, “Out, damned spot!”  I scrubbed and scrubbed my hands, and though they were not pristine,  I could at least handle books without smudging the pages.

I would buy almost nothing, I decided.  In the fall I usually reread Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a retelling of the Tam Lin ballad set at a college in Minnesota, but this year I have made a new list of novels with academic settings. I did find a copy of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, but not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Devil and Daniel Webster,or Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed.Well, my only hope is that the recently-fired CEO–who has filled Barnes and Noble with toys and novelties and done away with new book sections–will be replaced by  someone who loves books.

I did look at every book in the store, though, and bought just enough to fill my Barnes and Noble book bag.Unlike my mind, the bike pannier could barely expand enough to hold the books.

Do you have a back-to-school reading plan?  Novels set in academe?  Or perhaps that calculus text? 

I am so glad I don’t have to go back to school, though!

Three Strikes and You’re Out: The Pronoun Crisis and the Decline of the English Language

Everybody hates a grammar show-off:  no wonder my post “The Hipster Nerd’s Pronoun Crisis” excited mild controversy. Mind you, I do not set out to find grammar mistakes.  Egregious errors jump off the page at me.  But in the name of political correctness (and since my politics are radical I never expected to use that cliche), pronouns can prove contentious.  Who knew?

I wrote last week:

I have concluded that there is a pronoun crisis.  Editors no longer understand the correct use of pronouns (he, she, it, they, one, everyone, anyone, someone, who, etc.).  And they have not mastered that simplest of rules, the agreement of pronouns with their antecedents in gender and number.

Much to my dismay,  I have noticed pronoun errors recently in the TLS : the third-person plural pronoun “they” has been used to refer back to  singular pronouns.  The following sentence is so bafflingly awkward that I am surprised it saw print, but let me concentrate on the pronouns.

“When you read about someone working their way through their intended-to-impress reading list, it helps you to imagine that you too are capable of accomplishing such a feat.”

The indefinite pronoun someone is singular; the possessive pronoun their is plural. FIRST CORRECT VERSION:  “When you read about someone working his way through an  intended-to-impress reading list…'” SECOND CORRECT VERSION:  “When you read about someone working her way through an  intended-to-impress reading list…”  THIRD CORRECT VERSION:  “When you read about someone working his or her way through an  intended-to-impress reading list…”

I challenge you to rewrite this unwieldy sentence with any semblance of elegance.  The reward?  Some Penguin postcards.  (You’ll need them to write to editors.)

At my original post last week, many comments were enlightening, and five out of eight commenters agreed with me, so I was pleased.  The novelist Liz Bass explained, “There is also a movement to make language gender neutral by having individuals opt in to be referred to as they and their. The first time someone requested I do this I was trying to organize something in a group email, and referring to one person as ‘they’ just confused everyone.”

(I think I’ll curl up with Dorothy Parker later…)

Grammatical errors proliferate on the internet.  Who is responsible?  The editors of the online tabloid BuzzFeed can take some credit. The illiterati have praised a tome with the unpromising title,  A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.  The author Emmy J. Favilla is a former copy editor at Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue and is now the BuzzFeed Senior Commerce Editor (does that mean advertising?).

On the bright side, The New York Times continues to fight the good fight.  I am a fan of New York Times book critic Jennifer Szalai because of the gorgeous agreement of pronouns in this sentence!

To the gig-economy worker who has no idea how many hours she’ll be putting in next week (much less whether she’ll make enough to pay her rent or her health insurance), the prospect of donning a fedora, taking the commuter train into the city, sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 while her ample pension benefits accrue — well, it sounds like a fantasy now.

Most American print editors still use traditional style manuals: I still love The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post Book World, and The L.A. Times.  

You won’t be surprised to hear that George Orwell was a master or pronouns:

If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilization means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.

And the TLS columnist J.C. is impeccable.  He wrote in a recent column:

It was the dawn of what our writer called “the New Permissiveness”, and he or she foresaw an all-too permissive future.

Perhaps the English language will survive, but there will be much tweeting of emoji.

Good night!

“The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time” by David L. Ulin

“Why does reading matter? Because language and narrative are what we have.””–The Art of Reading by David L. Ulin

This book had my name on it.  Like many people, I struggle with internet dysfunction. (I refuse to call it addiction.) When I started this blog in December 2012, I decided to write a bookish post every day.   Imagine my shock when I discovered in 2014 that my book blog interfered with my reading.

In The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time, David L. Ulin, a critic, essayist, and former editor of the L.A. Times book page, writes about his own struggle with interrupted reading.  This book-length essay, first published in 2010, reminds us of why we need to read deeply.  The book has been reissued with a new introduction by Ulin.

Ulin is like us, in that he has always been an avid reader and  remembers the cities he has visited in terms of bookstores.  (The world is just one big bookstore and we all know it.)  But he began to struggle with reading with full attention after he got high-speed internet in 2006.  During the 2008 election he was constantly checking the news on the internet.  He writes,

I have a mental picture of myself at the computer, several on-screen windows open, one an email queue, one a piece of writing, the rest digital shards of reportage or documentation from a variety of sources: CNN, Reuters, Fox. I know this is apocryphal because, even in this era of extreme distraction, I am not a multitasker, but rather someone who does first one thing and then the next in scattered sequence, closing each application before opening another, looking, for the most part, at a single item at a time. And yet, something about this image strikes me with the force of metaphor, with the essence of emotional truth.

He writes about how our handheld devices, really high-powered computers, “shave seconds off our downtime,” and neurologists say that  the internet has rewired our brains. Ulin’s own concentration on reading books lessened as he gave in to irresistible urges to check the internet frequently.   And when his son, Noah, who does not like reading, complained about having to read The Great Gatsby for an English class, Ulin’s encouragement did not help much.  His teacher’s insistence on their annotating the text was ruining it for him.

Ulin finds his way back to reading, partly through rereading The Great Gatsby.   He reads it with no internet interruptions–the way he used to read.

He writes,

And consciousness is what we now require, perhaps as much as ever—the space to sit in silence and to think. We need what I once called a quiet revolution, to resist the lures of clickbait and of gossip, to stand clear of all the fake news and the bots. A decade ago—or almost—when I first began to notice my distraction, I did not think of it entirely in political terms. I’m not so sure I do now either, although the lines have been more starkly drawn. Why does reading matter? Because language and narrative are what we have. Without them, we are just scared mammals reacting to the world around us, devoid of agency, of thought, betraying the necessary (and, yes, frightful) inheritance of our own consciousness.

An excellent book for readers in our time.  And, by the way, I blog less often now so I can read more.

Cakes, Cold Cream, and Aging in Life & Literature

When our hair turned gray, it was a fun thing:  we defied society by not dyeing it.

Then we stopped looking in the mirror.

The worst thing about aging is the number, though the number of candles on the cake does not correspond to my age.  I insist on cupcakes.  “Someone left the cake out in the rain,” Richard Harris sings in the baffling “MacArthur Park.”  It is supposedly about a breakup, but I think of birthday cake.

The sun and genes have done their work on me.  Squinting on long bicycle trips crinkled my face and the sun striated the back of my hands.   Days at the spa, beauty parlor, and the gym might help, but one can’t reverse aging.  That said, I am grateful that my friends have also aged.  When I see their pictures on Facebook, I think, “It’s not just me!  We’re all the same age.”

Hollywood actresses must strive to be young, even if it means plastic surgery, boob jobs, and crash dieting.  In 2015, a  film critic attacked Carrie Fisher (then 58) for looking too old as Princess Leia in Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  As Fisher said on Twitter, “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well or not. Unfortunately, it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”

Carrie Fisher

Avoiding the mirror is my favorite remedy for aging, but on a rare trip to the dermatologist, the doctor prescribed what I call a “miracle cream” to unplug pores and smooth out wrinkles. When I remember, I smear it on before I go to bed.  It’s like having a lucky charm.  In my mind it helps!  I don’t look too closely.

Girls and women in literature often use miracle creams, anxious as they are to beautify themselves.  In Maud Hart-Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy series, which I read over and over as a child, Betsy tries a facial cream (perhaps for freckles?  I can’t remember), but is doubtful about the results.

In  “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa,” an essay in Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, this brilliant Japanese writer describes a month of culture shock in the International Writing Program with a large group of writers from different countries.  On a weekend trip to Minneapolis, she shares a hotel room with a Polish writer who slathers her face with some kind of cream.  And Mizumura thinks about the difference between writers from rich countries like Japan and poor countries like Poland.

…Ligia then went straight to the dresser, sat on the chair in front of the mirror, and started putting gobs of cream on her face.  Her face immediately began to shine.  I watched, mesmerized:  in this day and age, is there a cream that you slather on like that after washing your face?  I thought of my own tiny jar of expensive “night cream,” which I use only sparingly.  Was it possible that the historical development of eastern European women’s makeup was still stalled at the stage of cold cream?

In Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant new novel, The Garden Party, Celia, an English professor and critic, muses on aging.

At sixty-one Celia Cohen found herself suddenly at the age when if she greeted friends only slightly older, she would find their skeletons grinning back at her. What, she would think, so soon? And she would wonder how much she had in common with those bony, blear-eyed faces. Her shoulders were rounded from years of joyful hunching over books, and she feared decay and breakage as well as her tendency toward all-over roundness, which led her to perform calisthenics every morning. If the day was fine she would also go into the woods and practice some once martial, but for her peaceful, art.

No cold cream there, but t a very poignant and apt description of our changing looks.

What are your pet peeves about aging?  Do you believe in miracle creams?  What are your favorite scenes in literature about aging women?

The Speed of Summer: Dorothy Van Doren on August

Summer goes too swiftly.  And Dorothy Van Doren, an editor at The Nation and the wife of the critic Mark Van Doren, expresses my feelings exactly in her charming book, The Country Wife (1950).

Time, as it has a way of doing, passes.  The corn is silking, the tomatoes are large and green, the roses and delphiniums are over, and the annuals are beginning to bloom.  It is pretty hot in the daytime and we are thankful for our cool nights.  And on one of those nights, when it is not so cool and I am wakeful, the calendar comes home to me with rude force:  next Wednesday will be the first of August!

Has summer gone too fast for you, too?  I can’t believe it is August 24!  The Country Wife is a delightful chronicle of summers at the Van Dorens’ country house in Connecticut.  Dorothy Van Doren gardens, endures her husband’s carpentry projects, gets scratched-up picking blackberries, learns to eat puffballs, cans vegetables, and entertains guests (some welcome, some not).  If you like Gladys Tabor’s books, you might very well enjoy this quiet book.

What to Read for the 150th Anniversary of “Little Women”

I am looking forward to the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women on September 30.

I am an Alcott nut. I have read Little Women many, many times. And if you’re interested in my enthusiastic posts, try “Alcott at the Movies: Why Little Women But Not An Old-Fashioned Girl?, “Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote” and “A Louisa May Alcott Idyll: The Tasha Tudor Figurines.

I was seven the first time I read Little Women, after my mother took me to see the movie.  I wrote at this blog,

The most thrilling cinematic experience of my childhood was a Saturday matinée revival of Little Women, the 1949 film starring June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien.  Not only did the sentimental scenes of 19th-century family life via Hollywood delight me, but the wonderful novel pushed the boundaries of my moral imagination. When Amy burned Jo’s manuscript, I was stunned by this terrible deed.  But Jo must forgive her.   Sisterhood matters.   If the bond breaks, devastation follows.  Yet all these years later, I still find it unbearable to think of the destruction of Jo’s art.

Little Women is an American classic, still much admired by scholars, feminists, and queer theorists, but by 1960 it had disappeared from the public school curriculum, according to Beverly Lyon Clark in her fascinating book, The Afterlife of Little Women. I sometimes wonder, Does anyone read Little Women anymore except homeschoolers and us feminists?

And so today I was thrilled to read Joan Acocella’s brilliant essay in The New Yorker about Little Women.  She writes,  “It is doubtful whether any novel has been more important to America’s female writers than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the story of the four March sisters living in genteel poverty in Massachusetts in the eighteen-sixties.”

Acocella also reviews Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy:  The  Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.  She particularly admires Rioux’s amusing analyses of film adaptations.  She also lists writers who were influenced by Little Women, including Cynthia Ozick, Ann Petry, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Nora and Delia Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Stephenie Meyer.

I have not yet read Rioux’s book, but I have compiled a list of brilliant biographies, criticism, novels inspired by Little Women, and even two lesser-known autobiographical writings by Alcott.  Here they are!

Beverly Lyon Clark’s The Afterlife of Little Women (Johns Hopkins University Press), a brilliant history and analysis of the reception of Louisa May Alcott’s novel from 1868 to the present.  Clark, a feminist critic and an English professor at Wheaton College, is an Alcott scholar and an expert on children’s literature.  She was also a co-editor of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays.

Clark beghins,

I hold my childhood copy of Little Women.  A solid, tangible object.  Unchanging, it would seem, except for the yellowing of its pages and the peeling of its laminated cover.  Unchanged, I assumed when I first read it, from what Louisa May Alcott had originally written–or at least I had assumed a kind of authenticity.  Yet what appears to be solid and unchanged is not.

For what I read was abridged–“A Modern Abridged Edition,” it says on the title page.  But back then I didn’t scrutinize title pages.

I love this book!

Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury:  Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, a compelling, readable history of nineteenth-century writers who lived in Concord, Massachusetts.  Cheever refers to Concord as the American Bloomsbury.  And this book puts Alcott’s work in context.

3 John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2008.  It has been a while since I read it, but here is the publisher’s description:

Louisa May Alcott’s name is known universally. Yet, during her youth, the famous Alcott was her father, Bronson—an eminent teacher, lecturer, and admired friend of Emerson and Thoreau. Willful and exuberant, Louisa flew in the face of all her father’s intricate theories of child rearing. She, in turn, could not understand the frugal life Bronson preached, one that reached its epitome in the failed utopian community of Fruitlands. In a family that insisted on self-denial and spiritual striving, Louisa dreamed of wealth and fame. At the same time, like most daughters, she wanted her father’s approval. As her father struggled to recover from a breakdown and slowly resurrect his career, Louisa learned to support her family, teaching if she must, but finally finding her vocation in writing. This story of their tense yet loving relationship adds dimensions to Louis

Susan Cheever’s excellent book, Louisa May Alcott, which is part biography, part bibliomemoir.  Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s description:

Based on extensive research, journals, and correspondence, Cheever’s biography chronicles all aspects of Alcott’s life, from the fateful meeting of her parents to her death, just two days after that of her father. She details Bronson Alcott’s stalwart educational vision, which led the Alcotts to relocate each time his progressive teaching went sour; her unsuccessful early attempts at serious literature, including “Moods,” which Henry James panned; her time as a Civil War nurse, when she contracted pneumonia and was treated with mercury-laden calomel, which would affect her health for the rest of her life; and her vibrant intellectual circle of writers and reformers, idealists who led the charge in support of antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights.

5. Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott:  A Biography (the first biography I ever read of Alcott). Here is a bit about the author:

Stern, a partner in the firm of Rostenberg and Stern Rare Books, has edited  of several collections of Alcott’s works, including Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power; From Jo March’s Attic: Stories of Intrigue and Suspense; and Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers, all published by Northeastern University Press. A collection of Stern’s essays, Louisa May Alcott: From Blood & Thunder to Hearth & Home, is also published by Northeastern. She lives in New York City.

6. Geraldine Brooks’ superb novel, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.  I loved it!  The publisher’s description calls it a

historical novel and love story set during a time of catastrophe, on the front lines of the American Civil War. Acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks gives us the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – and conjures a world of brutality, stubborn courage and transcendent love. An idealistic abolitionist, March has gone as chaplain to serve the Union cause. But the war tests his faith not only in the Union – which is also capable of barbarism and racism – but in himself. As he recovers from a near-fatal illness, March must reassemble and reconnect with his family, who have no idea of what he has endured. A love story set in a time of catastrophe, March explores the passions between a man and a woman, the tenderness of parent and child, and the life-changing power of an ardently held belief

7. Katharine Weber’s The Little Women.  This modern retelling of Little Women by the brilliant writer Katharine Weber kept me late one night.   Here is the publisher’s description:

Sisters Meg, Jo and Amy have the perfect family–loving, creative parents; a comfortable life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; a future full of possibility. Perfect until the daughters discover their mother has had affair, and, even worse, that their father has forgiven her. Shattered by their parents’ failure to live up to the moral standards and values of the family, the two younger sisters leave New York and move to Meg’s apartment in New Haven, where Meg is a junior at Yale. It is here that the girls will form their own family, divorced from their parents. The Little Women is a chronicle of that year, wittily narrated as a novel written by the middle sister Jo and commented upon throughout by her sisters.

8. The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson.  You can’t have too many copies of Little Women!  Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s description:

Renowned Alcott scholar John Matteson brings his expertise to the book, to the March family it creates, and to the Alcott family who inspired it all. Through numerous photographs taken in the Alcott family home expressly for this edition—elder daughter Anna’s wedding dress, the Alcott sisters’ theater costumes, sister May’s art, and Abba Alcott’s recipe book—readers discover the extraordinary links between the real and the fictional family.

9. Gabrielle E. Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-1914)is one of several spin-offs of Little Women.   Beverly Lyon Clark, author of The Afterlife of Little Women, considers Jackson’s series the best of the spinoff.   She writes,

The three sisters in Jackson’s fiction series are Eleanor, about seventeen in the first volume, bookish and academic; Constance, fifteen, the most domestic of the three; and the madcap ten-year-old Jean. As in Little Women, the family has declined in wealth because the father endorsed a loan to a friend who then defaulted; and like Mr. March in part 1 of Alcott’s novel, Mr. Carruth is absent from the family circle, but in this case because he has died. There is likewise a strong-willed aunt who, like Aunt March, scolds but provides financial help, and there is a friendly, wealthy young man nearby, not unlike Laurie.

10.  Hospital Sketches and Transcendental Wild Oats are two fascinating autobiographical works by Alcott.  Hospital Sketches is an  account of her experiences during the Civil War as a nurse;  Transcendental Wild Oats is a satire of life in her father’s failed commune, Fruitlands, where the Alcotts lived and starved for seven months.

What are your favorite books by or about Alcott?  According to Beverly Lyons Clark in The Afterlife of Little Women, American intellectuals, feminists, and queer theorists love Little Women, as do Europeans and the Japanese, but British intellectuals despise it.  Fascinating!

One Book at a Time in the Multiple Reading Age

“One book at a time,” I say, staring at a stack of books.  It is my new mantra.  One…book…at…a…time.

I have never joined AA.  Well, I don’t drink alcoholic beverages. But the AA slogan, “One Day at a Time,” is  so applicable to my  book addiction that I’ve adapted the catchphrase.

I have a huge stack of books on the coffee table.  I am reading perhaps 10 of them.  I pick up Anna Karenina, which I have read many times.  On page 760, Vronsky is off to the elections in town, while Anna must stay home in the country.  They almost quarrel, because she does not want to be alone.  But Anna knows she has to quiet herself and not alienate him.

“I hope you won’t be dull?”

“I hope not,” replied Anna.  “I received a box of books from Gautier’s yesterday.”

Anna, I received that same box of books!  But it isn’t enough when your lover is gallivanting.  Anna is isolated, an outcast. Her friends shun her after she leaves her husband for Vronsky.  And it is sad that Dolly, Anna’s loyal sister-in-law, is repulsed when she learns that Anna practices birth control and sees how little she cares for her baby.  Though Dolly is exhausted by childbearing, the idea of contraception negates her purpose in life and scares her.

THEN I TOOK A LONG AFTERNOON BREAK.  And I finished East of Eden, one of most brilliant American novels I’ve ever read.  You will not be able to put down this warped family saga, a 20th century take on Genesis.  And, believe me, there is no scarier character in literature than Adam Trask’s manipulative wife, Cathy.

ALL RIGHT, I PUT AWAY MY BOOKS to surf the net. And I almost succumbed to an inner voice that told me to buy a new copy of Anna Karenina,  a volume in the Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection.  Fortunately, I realized in time that I already have that same translation in an Oxford hardcover with a different cover.

One day at a time!

I made progress.   I limited myself to reading from two books today instead of ten.

One…book…at…a…time.