A Catch-up Post: Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter

I am  sick with a cold. Propped up on pillows, coughing and sniffling, binge-watching Halt and Catch Fire on Netflix,  I try  to ignore the chaos in the bedroom.  There are three tea cups, a headless Jo/Little Women figurine (knocked on the floor by a curious and very wild cat), and a box of Kleenex on the bedside table.  An untidy stack of paperback mysteries and a review copy of an intellectual novel I rashly promised to blog about are on the bed. (Do I ethically have to review it?) My favorite cat has overturned the wastebasket and is delicately ripping the Kleenex. Another cat has shed white hair all over the nest of an old black sweater. I am overwhelmed.  I am too sick to clean. Nobody will clean if I don’t clean.   How can I clean if I can’t breathe?  Finally I drag myself  to the doctor and get some antibiotics.

While I wait for the antibiotics to kick in, I must catch up with a “review-ette”of Isabel Allende’s lovely new novel, In the Midst of Winter.

The Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende is a dazzling writer, and her translators serve her brilliantly. As a best-selling writer Allende has straddled a fine line between literary and popular fiction, thrilling readers with her graceful style and riveting stories, and earning the praise of critics.  In her famous first novel, The House of the Spirits, she astutely blended magic realism with history in the breathtaking story of three generations of a prominent family in an unnamed Latin American country.

But not all her books utilize magic realism. Her last novel, The Japanese Lover, was realistic, and so is her latest novel.  In her new gorgeously-written novel, In the Midst of Winter, translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, she deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man, shifting back and forth in time between the present and the 1970s.

The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York.   Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile,  is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why the hell Richard, her landlord and boss at NYU, is so miserly? Couldn’t he turn up the heat?  To be honest, she had thought that, old friends that  they were, they would keep each other warm as lovers.

Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance  after the 1973 coup in Chile.

There are few older heroines in literature, and Allende captures the imperfections that we women are taught to ignore but must learn to accept.   Most important, Lucia knows how to love herself.

 Lucia still entertained the fantasies of a young girl despite the fact that she was almost sixty-two. She had a wrinkled neck, dry skin, and flabby arms; her knees were heavy; and she had become resigned to watching her waist disappear because she did not have the discipline to combat the process in the gym. Although she had youthful breasts, they were not hers. She avoided looking at herself naked, because she felt much better when she was dressed. Aware of which colors and styles favored her, she kept to them rigorously and was able to purchase a complete outfit in twenty minutes, without ever allowing curiosity to distract her. Like photographs, the mirror was an implacable enemy, because both showed her immobile, with her flaws mercilessly exposed. She thought that if she had any attraction, it lay in movement, for she was flexible and had a grace that was unearned, since she had done nothing to foster it. She was as sweet-toothed and lazy as an odalisque…

Richard,  the human rights professor who can’t turn up the thermostat, is a piece of work.  He  is very handsome and kind, but very uptight, an absent-minded cat owner who does everything on a rigid schedule, because he is afraid of falling back into alcoholism.   He does not want to take any emotional risks, because he ruined lives when he did that before.  He has a horrendous past, which we learn about later.

Richard and Lucia become closer under tragic circumstances.   Richard calls Lucia for help after his car collides with a Lexus driven by a Guatemalan women, Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented worker/nanny who has borrowed her boss’s car–and she is hysterical because there is a corpse in the trunk!  She doesn’t know how it got there.   Richard needs a translator, and it is Lucia who pulls everything together. She and Richard devise a plot to save Evelyn and get rid of the car and body,  and during a harrowing road trip to upstate New York, the three become friends.  Despite the horror of the past and the present, there are many comic moments, and Lucia and Richard finally have no choice but to share a bed.

Allende creates real living, breathing characters, and we care deeply about them.  The details of the violence in South America are horrifying and very real, and reading about Evelyn’s grueling journey across the border led by a “coyote” makes you want to protest all over again that terrible idea of building a wall!  Allende has devoted a lifetime to telling the stories of Latin American women and helping refugees.  She witnessed the violence of  the military coup in Chile in 1973, when  her cousin Salvador Allende, president of the socialist country, was ousted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who instituted his dictatorship.  She and her family fled to Venezuela in 1975 .  She has been an American citizen since 1993.

Anyway, In the Midst of Winter is tragic but also full of joie de vivre.   I plan to give it to various women friends of different tastes, because everyone will love it.   My only criticism?  The ending works out a tad too well, like Barbara Kingsolver’s early books. But I was spellbound by this brilliant, moving novel.

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.


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?