“An After-Dinner’s Sleep” by Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday. 

On a jaunt to London, I discovered his books at Waterstones. I wondered, Why haven’t I heard of him before? But Middleton’s work is not widely acclaimed in the U.S.   A critic at The New York Times in 1989 called Entry into Jerusalem a “tight-lipped novel by the prolific British writer” and further said “This mannered repression leaves much space in the novel for the author to fill with tedious detail.”

My favorite novel of the year!

It is exactly my thing!  I adore British repression. I love Anita Brookner, of whom Middleton slightly reminds me, Kazuo Ishiguro, and A. S. Byatt.  In fact, these British writers represent the pinnacle of 20th-century British literature to me.

It is true that Middleton’s remarkable novel, An After-Dinner’s Sleep, which was published in 1986, is quite buttoned-up. And I love it!  The protagonist, Alistair Murray, a 65-year-old widower, has a lot of time on his hands.  He loves music and plays Bach on the piano, reads widely, and takes long walks.  He is a retired Director of Education who was once a powerful man in the Midlands. Now he must shape his days by routine activities.  And he is sitting alone one night when Eleanor Franks, with whom he had a brief sexual affair years ago, shows up at his house.

Middleton’s writing is brilliant but not showy.  The first exchange between Alistair and Eleanor subtly reveals their disparate characters.

‘I’m not interrupting anything important?’

‘You’re not interrupting anything. I was sitting here reading, but if you questioned me I’d have some difficulty recalling what it was. There’s nothing I want on the telly, and the Prom’s full of stuff I don’t want to hear. When I was young Friday night was Beethoven.’

‘And Amami,’ she said. ‘A shampoo.’ She giggled, but her face straightened at once.

Eleanor is an impulsive socialite lacking compelling interests. She claims she has dropped in because she is disturbed by a news item.  But  it becomes clear that it was an impulse, perhaps born of loneliness.  Eleanor, too, is a widow.

Middleton’s quiet descriptions of daily life fascinate me. Every word is carefully chosen, and the characterization of Alistair reveals a capable man who is trying to find his way alone in old age.  He misses his wife, Janet, an ambitious woman who pushed him into his successful career, which he is convinced was over-valued and riddled with mistakes.  He escapes self-deprecating rumination  by spending time with his son, Sebastian, a famous TV journalist, and his wife Francesca, a lawyer.

Eleanor is an important character, but not the center of his life. He is too cautious; she is too flighty. Alistair and Eleanor begin an off-again, on-again friendship.  She drinks too much, invites him over to help entertain her older sister, who is dying of cancer, and accompanies him to a classical music concert where Alistair is uplifted and she is obviously bored.  Quite often she takes off on impulse to stay with friends in Portugal or France.  But Alistair is used to solitude, and he disciplines himself to study various subjects.  He is writing an article about education, which is not going well; Middleton’s description of writing gone amok is pitch-perfect.  (Haven’t we all been there?)

I love Middleton’s wit.  When Eleanor’s sick sister retires to bed with Mansfield Park, Eleanor asks Alistair, “Would you choose Mansfield Park if you were dying?”  (No, I would not!)

And the title comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep
Dreaming on both.

A brilliant novel!

All the Way to Reno: What Bloggers Expect

 R.E.M. performing in Germany, 2003.

“All the Way to Reno: You’re Gonna Be a Star” is my favorite R.E.M. Song.  It is a sweetly ironic song about a singer who believes he will get famous in Reno.  I love the YouTube video of this bittersweet song.  I’ve known artists, writers, and singers who make it “all the way to Reno” but alas! nowhere else.

And this song also makes me think of bloggers.  Here is an excerpt from the lyrics:

Humming
All the way to Reno
You’ve dusted the non believers
And challenge the laws of chance
Now, sweet
You were so sugar sweet
You may as well have ‘kick me’
Fastened on your sleeve

You know what you are
You’re gonna be a star.
You know what you are
You’re gonna be a star

I love the wildly different voices of bloggers: some are witty and entertaining, others preposterously earnest. But, oddly, there is little connection between blogging and professional gigs.   Over the years I have wondered, “Hm, why doesn’t this blogger write a novel?”  But I have never found a novel by a blogger, though surely it must have happened?

I myself think in terms of nonfiction, which is easier to publish. (I must get to work on that novel!) And I do know of several bloggers who have succeeded in writing memoirs, cookbooks,  and self-help.   Here is a list of four books by bloggers, though I’ve read only the second on the list. Do let me know if you’ve read any of them or know of others, especially novels!

1.  Anne Bogel, author of the popular lifestyle  blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, has published a bibliomemoir, I’d Rather Be Reading:  The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life.  It looks charming, and I have reserved it at the library.

2.  You’ve doubtless heard of Julie Powell’s memoir, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which is based on her blog about a year of cooking all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The enjoyable film of the book was written and directed by Nora Ephron.

3. Ree Drummond’sThe Pioneer Woman began as a lifestyle blog. This witty rancher’s wife, homeschooling mom, and blogger has since published cookbooks, an autobiography, and starred in her own cooking show.  Last I heard she’d opened a restaurant!  Where does she get her energy?

4.  Gretchen Rubin’s best-selling book The Happiness Project began as a blog.  I confess I haven’t read this book, but I do remember it got good reviews.  Here’s an excerpt from the book description:

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. “The days are long, but the years are short,” she realized. “Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.

Okay, I’m sure there are more of these books, so do recommend some!

A Willa Cather Reading & a Bike Accident

I am a fan of day-long readings of classics.  Such readings usually fall on anniversaries of an author’s birth or the publication of a book.  You probably know about Bloomsday, June 16, the day on which James Joyce sets his novel Ulysses.  Some years ago, my husband and I popped into a pub where there was a Bloomsday reading of Ulysses.  People milled and thronged, drank beer, and listened to the reading.  I wonder:  did they really read aloud the entire book in a day? Or did it take longer?  It was both moving and boring, and we left after a couple of hours.

This weekend there is a similar event for Willa Cather fans.   On Saturday, Sept. 22, the Willa Cather Foundation is sponsoring a daylong reading of My Antonia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book.  (The official publication anniversary is Sept. 21, but Saturday is obviously a better day for gathering.)

The Willa Cather Foundation reports:

This event is free and open to the public and will take place at Omaha’s Gallery 1516. It will begin at 10:00 a.m. and end in the early evening, to be followed by a talkback discussion and no-frills closing reception. Attendees may drop in at any time of day or come and go throughout the event. A live stream will also be available on the Willa Cather Foundation’s YouTube channel.

Alas, we will not make it to Omaha for the Willa reading because…

BAD NEWS AND GOOD NEWS

Our bikes parked in front of a cafe.

THE BAD NEWS:  I have spent a lot of time this week riding the bus back and forth to the hospital.  My husband, a bike commuter, was hit by a car on his way home from work. He was riding in the bike lane when a car swerved in front of him to turn into an alley.  My husband was pitched over the handlebars and his body slammed into the car.  He was hospitalized for a broken collarbone and collapsed lung.  Witnesses assured the police that it was the driver’s fault, but the driver is long gone.

Since my husband has never been hospitalized, you can imagine that this did not sit well.  It was a battle of wills to get him to sit down:  he wanted to give his chair to guests.   He wildly talked of driving the car home with his arm in a sling.   He also thought he was could saunter down to Starbucks with his arm in a sling and carry back his own tea.

“No, I’ll get your tea.”

He insisted the doctor and I were over-protective!

THE GOOD NEWS.  He is home, thank God.  I have NEVER been so worried in my life.

I offered to get him a cup of tea. “I’m not an invalid,” he said.

“You are, dummy,” I said.

Anyway, I would prefer him to rest, but he is not used to sitting around.  He has, however, promised not to bike or drive for a while.  Thank God!

And if anyone has any tips on taking care of an extremely healthy person who has been in the hospital and who won’t sit still, tell me!

Book Despair: Too Many Books, Not Enough Space

Shelved, if not organized.

I  looked around the room with pleasure. The space is bright and cheerful:  we recently painted the walls and moved out some of the furniture.   But the real difference? There are no books on the floor.

Bloggers write about book hauls, but gloss over book hoarding. The official definition of book hoarding, according to Rachel Kramer Bussell, is having 1,000 books or more.

Bussell wrote at The Toast in 2014:

I wish I could honestly answer “there’s no such thing as too many books,” but as I learned from experience, that’s not true. Nothing brought this home for me like watching paid professionals cart away hundreds of books—read and unread, purchased lovingly or attained at book parties or conferences—when I hired a trash removal service last year upon moving from my two-bedroom apartment after 13 years.

In my experience, it is all about square footage.  We used to live in an old house where the attic alone could hold 1,000 books. Now we live in a nicer house with less space–and if only we had only 1,000 books!

If the public library were better, I would depend less on bookstores and own fewer books.  On the rare occasions when I visit a university library I find everything I need, but the local library has a policy of weeding books every five years.  See the picture above?  Only three of these books are available at our library:  the Anne Brontes, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and The Butcher’s Daughter.  (And, by the way, I’ve read all the books on those shelves, so I’m not just a hoarder.)

The great thing about “redoing” the bedroom:  I can now read in bed without getting distracted by the messy stacks of books on the floor.   With fewer books in the room, I get more reading done.   And I am so happy with the less cluttered space hat I am determined to address my shopping problem

HERE’S WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT.  (And I would welcome any suggestions.)

1. Read fewer book reviews. I don’t need to keep up with the latest books, because I have so many good ones at home.

2. Read Goodreads reviews and blogs.  There is less urgency about blogs, probably  because it is a volunteer activity.  And bloggers write about both old and new books:   there is no expiration date on the product, so we can add the books to our TBR and enter the conversation when we’re ready.   Hence, there is no voice in my head saying, “Buy the latest books!  Buy them now!” Now the voice says, “Oh, a reissued book by Rachel Ferguson.  I will buy a copy next month, after if I finish X, X, and X.”

3.  Stop using bookstore sites as databases.  There is much information about books at bookstore sites, but it is too tempting to buy the books.

4.  Find a new hobby.  But what?  Politics? Knitting?  I can’t imagine.

All right, any other hoarders out there?

The Mrs. Project, # 1: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Elizabeth Gaskell.

It began in 2010 as part of my desultory “Mrs. Project.” In the nineteenth century, Gaskell’s work was published under the name “Mrs Gaskell,” not Elizabeth.  The Mrs. title was also de rigueur  for Victorian writers Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mrs. Browning, and Mrs. Campbell Praed.

I have been considering Gaskell’s work because I am reading Nell Stevens’ new book, The Victorian and the Romantic, which is part fictional biography of Gaskell, part memoir of Stevens’s studies of Gaskell for her Ph.D.

I recently reread Ruth, Gaskell’s second novel, in which she treats the subject of pregnancy out of wedlock with sympathy and intelligence. Though much has changed since the nineteenth century, unintentional pregnancy remains a social problem, especially as states slash funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide health care for low-income women.

The first hundred pages of this intriguing but uneven novel are pitch-perfect.  Gaskell’s style is simple and serviceable:  the plot races along, the characters are vivid, and there is much pathos. The unmarried heroine, Ruth Hilton, is a teenage orphan with no future. After her parents die, her guardian sends her away to be a seamstress in a sweatshop.  The girls work impossibly long hours–they sometimes work till 2 a.m. and then get up at dawn.  One night Ruth is chosen to go to a ball to work in the cloakroom sewing rips and repairing ladies’ gowns. And then a wealthy young man, Mr. Bellingham, falls for her beauty.

An illustration by Debra McFarlane from the Folio Society edition of Ruth

Poor Ruth!  Her boss, Mrs. Mason, fires her after seeing Mr Bellingham holding Ruth’s arm as they walk around town.  And so Ruth becomes homeless.  Mr. Bellingham, whom she loves and regards as her saviour, whirls her away to London.  Then they travel to Wales, where Ruth admries the countryside and takes long walks.

Naturally, this idyll cannot last forever.  Mr. Bellingham falls ill, and his mother takes him away.  He never returns to Ruth, because she was just a passing phase.  After he deserts her, she becomes very ill, and she learns she is pregnant.  Mr. Benson, an upstanding minister, and his sister,  Faith, take her into their home. After a discussion of the relative morality of telling the truth about  Ruth’s pregnancy (and ruining her life),  or  passing her off as a widow and a relative, they do the latter.  And it works out very well:  Ruth blooms under their care, and they love her son Leonard.  She even gets a day job as governess for a wealthy family.  That is, until…  Yes, the Mrs. title can serve her only so long.

There is a draggy patch in the middle, but the pace picks up again and I really loved this little book.  It is a predecessor of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Wearing Chambray

You can’t get more girlish than the color pink. Why do I, a woman of a certain age, now have a pink diary?

On a recent shopping trip I couldn’t resist a notebook with a suede cover. I would have preferred any other color but pink was all they had.  And I thought it might be on sale because there was no price on it. The cashier scrolled through notebook pix on her phone. “It’s $11.95. Do you still want it?”

“Yes.”

Pink was the color of my girlhood.  My mother painted my room  pink. In elementary school, she bought me a pink dress with a cape collar to wear to birthday parties. In junior high, we were mod like Twiggy but less thin.  I had a “shocking pink” mini-dress which I wore with textured over-the-knee stockings.  In the cafetorium in study hall, a fashionable mini-skirted friend confided she was having sex with a popular girl by inserting a Yardley Slicker (a Yardley brand of lipstick) into her vagina. I was cynical: I said she would get an A in English for that story.  In retrospect she was probably inspired by the Yardley ad: “Only Slickers Do It. Make you soft, wild, whatever you want to be.”

Then in high school I rebelled against pink: freedom was just another word for wearing chambray shirts and jeans. And a lesbian teacher took me out for coffee, lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems, and then seduced me by sobbing about how often she had been rejected when she said she was gay. I’d rather hoped my high school crush (a boy) would seduce me, but who was I to reject her? Not only did we “wear our love like heaven” (Donovan) but “loved the one we were with” (Stephen Stills).

I’ve written elsewhere about how boring it was. I wasn’t keen on other women’s vaginas. And then there were the women’s dances, where radical lesbian feminists wore men’s suits and danced only to women’s music. Perhaps they were parodying  butch-femme roles, but it was a drab scene, even with the Supremes.  In retrospect I’m impressed with their intellect:  they were writing about feminist politics, founding various women’s centers, and experimenting with being gay.  Some went back to heterosexuality (like me), some really were gay.

By the time I was in college, I was happily heterosexual again and had a boyfriend (and then two husbands). Sometimes I wore pink t-shirts with Lee jeans, pink Oxford shirts with jean skirts, and a pink jacket.

I only have one pink shirt at the moment. And my husband will not allow me to paint any of our rooms pink.  Fortunately there are hundreds of colors at the paint store.

And now I have a pink diary!

Whom Should You Read after Dodie Smith? I Say Elizabeth Goudge

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and The New Moon with the Old are incomparably charming.  I often reread favorite scenes:  the scene in I Capture the Castle where Rose and Cassandra are mistaken for bears because they are wearing their late aunt’s unfashionable antique fur coats; and the scene in The New Moon with the Old where Clare  jokes that the only job she is qualified for is “king’s mistress,” because she has read so many Dumas novels.

But whom do you read after Dodie Smith?

I have turned to Elizabeth Goudge, another witty, spellbinding storyteller of the 20th century.  You don’t see her books anymore, but our public library still has her enchanting children’s novel, The Little White Horse, which won the Carnegie Medal for British Children’s Books in 1946.  The first Goudge I read was her adult novel, Green Dolphin Street, which is a bit like Gone with the Wind set in New Zealand; it won the Literary Guild Award in 1944 and was adapted as a film.  (I’d love to see the film.)

I recently reread A City of Bells, set in Torminster, a Cathedral town based on Wells in the UK.  I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written novel, with its sharp dialogue and lyrical descriptions of the city.  One of the main characters, Jocelyn Irvin,  has been physically and psychologically damaged in the Boer War.  He has no vocation, so he goes to Torminster to stay with his grandfather, a canon of the cathedral. And while there he falls in love with Felicity, a gorgeous, charming actress who is visiting her aunt.  Due to the influence of Felicity and Grandfather, he opens a bookshop.  And there he finishes the manuscript of a poem by the former tenant;  he and Felicity produce it as a play in London.  When Jocelyn goes to London for rehearsals,  Grandfather runs the bookshop.

I know this quote will make you laugh.

…Joceylyn was obliged to leave the shop to the care of Grandfather, the children, and Miss Lavendar on at least three days a week … Grandmother was outraged … That she should live to see her own husband on the wrong side of a counter was really the last straw in a married life strewn with straws.  “A Canon of the Cathedral serving in a shop,” she said indignantly to Jocelyn.  “I never heard of such a thing in my whole life.  What the Dean thinks I don’t know and don’t want to know.  And what your poor Grandfather, who has never, let me tell you, been able to subtract a penny from three-halfpence since the day he was born, gives in the way of change I’m sure I don’t know.”

I am surprised at how well Goudge’s books have stood up. Some passages are Dickensian, some are graceful, others sentimental.  My favorite Goudge is The Scent of Water, a  novel about a professional woman in London who inherits a house in the country from a relative she saw only once as a child. When she decides to move there, friends tell her it’s a bad decision, but she comes to terms with herself as a person rather than as a financially successful woman without a personal life

What is your favorite comfort book?  And whom do you read after Dodie Smith?