London without a Shovel

Some of the books I bought in London.

Take the 5 pence,” I said at Oxfam.  Snow was falling, and I needed a bag for my books.  (You pay 5 pence per bag in London, as a way to reduce the use of plastic bags.)

Mind you, I had a Waitrose bag, a Foyles bag, and a Westminster Abbey bag in my hotel room.

There wasn’t much snow in London. Possibly an inch or two.  But it was packed down, slushy, and slippery.   Nobody shoveled the sidewalks.  I saw nary a snow plow nor a snow blower. It took me a day to realize the city seemed empty because the snow had shut it down.  (N.B. Other parts of the UK really got a lot of snow, but London just expected snow.)

Even though Londoners are wusses about the snow, I’m a wuss about the cold. My mother taught me always to take off my coat inside,  but that wasn’t possible in cathedrals.   I froze my ass off at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, though I kept my jacket zipped.  I also visited Waterstones on the day the furnace broke.  At the lovely, warm, almost-empty National Portrait Gallery I sat on a bench and was amazed to find myself looking at  portraits of Andrew Marvell and a very young Milton. Later, at an almost empty Pret a Manger, I ate a fruit cup, drank coffee, and enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s essays on London.

Definitely not an ideal season for tourism, but I loved making the rounds of the bookstores.

In the window of a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, (possibly) Any Amount of Books, I saw a very old copy of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?,  but knew there wouldn’t be room in my suitcase.

At Foyles, I browsed in the fiction, essays, and  foreign language sections.   I bought a copy of Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, which is very much like her previous book about books, Howards End Is on the Landing. I couldn’t fit it in my suitcase, alas!  but read it in the hotel.   I also bought E. Nesbit’s The Lark, (which I read as an e-book a few years ago and wrote about here), with an introduction by Penelope Lively.

I came across Hatchards,  the UK’s oldest bookstore, which was founded in 1797, in a very elegant building on Picadilly (the original building). It is my new favorite bookstore in London.   I bought a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Heritage.


I bought used  paperbacks at Oxfam and  Skoob.  Here’s a list:

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness

The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West

Daughters of Decadence, edited by Elaine Showalter.

Hermann Hesse’s Rosshalde

William Plomer’s Museum Pieces (looked interesting: I’ll let you know)

H. E. Bates’s Death of a Huntsman (I’m very fond of H. E. Bates)

The Minister by Maurice Edelman. (Never heard of it:  looks amusing)

So did I buy great books or junk?  Only time will tell.

And I hope you have all thawed in London.

“Frump with a Bun?” & Other Literary Matters

Doris Lessing

Although I have cut back on reading reviews because I don’t have room on the shelves for more books (sound familiar?), I was excited to discover Sara Wheeler’s fascinating review at The Spectator of Lara Feigel’s new book,  Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing.  

“Free Woman,” a phrase Lessing uses throughout The Golden Notebook,  is a smart title for a book that is a mix of criticism and personal writing.  As I  wrote about The Golden Notebook last fall,  “The heroine, Anna Wulf, a blocked writer, and her friend Molly, an actress, are both single mothers and ‘free women,’ as they ironically call themselves.”

What does it mean to be a “free woman”?  Are we “free”?  Were we ever? Lessing doubted it.   And we are now so big on censorship online–do say this,  don’t say that, and apologize on Twitter if anyone complains–that I wonder what Lessing would say.   One phrase in Wheeler’s excellent review bothered me.  I must emphasize that I am not complaining, but criticizing one phrase.    Wheeler says  that Feigel’s book moves chronologically “from childhood… [to] the post-menopause adoption of an identity of asexual frump with a bun.”  And I hate that word “frump.”

Why concentrate on a writer’s looks at all?  We don’t talk about male writers as frumps, do we? But from George Eliot (ugly) to Virginia Woolf (beautiful), from Carson McCullers (a bit odd) to Mary McCarthy (great smile), we are fixated on women writers’ looks.

In one of my favorite novels, The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing criticizes the pressure to look young and writes about the transformation of the middle-aged heroine Kate’s looks.  When her family is away for a summer, she takes a job as an interpreter and has an affair.   And then she spends the remainder of the summer in a rented room in London, having a breakdown.  At the end, as a middle-aged woman, she ceases to try to look youthful.

Her experiences of the last months, her discoveries, her self-definition; what she hoped were now strengths, were concentrated here–that she would walk into her home with her hair undressed, with her hair tied straight back for utility; rough and streaky, and the widening gray band showing like a statement of intent.  It was as if the rest of her–body, feet, even face, which was aging but amenable–belonged to everyone else.  But her hair–no!  No, no one was going to lay hands on that.

Personally, I think Lessing was beautiful, but I don’t have a problem with frumps. Some of us do our hair, some do not.

Wheeler’s review certainly made me want to read Lara Feigel’s Free Woman. The book is not available in the U.S. yet.


Erin Kelly at The Guardian wrote a fascinating article, “Ebooks are not ‘stupid’ – they’re a revolution.”  She wrties,

I was a relatively late convert to the e-reader, getting my Kindle five years ago when it became clear that reading 600-pages of A Suitable Boy while breastfeeding wasn’t going to work. After a frenzied few months of almost exclusive e-reading, I returned largely to the traditional printed book for a number of reasons: screen fatigue, a tendency to scrawl in margins, because I want my kids to see me reading, and because I’m a passionate supporter of bookshops and booksellers. Hachette Livre CEO Arnaud Nourry recently called ebooks “stupid” – but last summer, they changed my life.

The Women’s Prize longlist has been announced.  The only one I’ve read is The Idiot–I loved it and wrote about it here.

3.  And Barnes and Noble just launched its first nationwide book club.  The first selection is Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion,  and you get free coffee and a cookie at the book club.  May 2 is the date.

Adult Education by Annette Williams Jaffee

I have recently read some brilliant women’s novels, many of which, alas, are out-of-print.  Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education (1981), which was praised in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the TLS,  is a comical, discerning novel about women’s friendship. It was published  by Ontario Review Press, a small press founded by Joyce Carol Oates and her husband Raymond Smith.

It’s odd what women’s novels survive and what do not.  Why does one remain popular, and another popular novel vanishes from the shelves? I found a paperback copy of Adult Education on a wintry day in London, when I was clomping from bookstore to bookstore on unshoveled slushy sidewalks.  (I plan to teach an adult education class on snow removal next time I am in London.)

Adult Education is hilarious, snappy, and slightly subversive.  Becca and Ulli  are both pregnant when they meet in an adult education class.  Becca, a former dancer who graduated from Bennington, is emotional and affectionate, also incredibly witty about her Jewish childhood in Chicago, while  Ulli is a cool, Swedish blonde, a former model who is happy to be a housewife, free from the pressures of looking stylish.  The third-person narrative is from Becca’s comical perspective, and that is a good thing, because we can relate to Becca as we can’t to Ulli.  I was hooked from the opening witty paragraph.

Becca met Ulli in an Audlt Education course in Pre-Columbian Art.  They were both pregnant with their first children and sat like two Marimekko pumpkins in a field of withering vines, a group of professors’ widows.  The widows were off to Mexico when the course ended, with the instructor, who was as brown and round as a Toltec jug.  Becca later thought of them during the long winter of her motherhood, imagined their knotty legs in support hose, climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, an endless Paradise, while she shuffled back and forth like a tired obedient cow.  She knew from her Lamaze training that Childbirth was the Ultimate Experience, but that winter she sometimes wished she’d gone on the trip instead.

Soon Becca and Ulli become best friends.  They take adult ed classes in photography, pottery, and tennis:  Ulli can do everything; Becca’s only talent is dance. Becca took ballet as a child and majored in dance at Bennington.  When she is pregnant with her second daughter she decides to dance for Ulli, but can’t squeeze into her toe shoes.  Becca is proud of  her long toes and blackened toenails, the result of dancing on point; she explains pain is a badge of honor for ballerinas.  But her “restrained pirouettes” make her look like the dancing hippo in Fantasia, she says.

Naturally, it is Becca who becomes a feminist first. Ulli is too practical to think in those terms.  Becca’s husband, Gerry, a sociology professor, is unfaithful (an hour before his Ph.D. graduation she catches him having sex in a library carrel with his former girlfriend) and she tells Ulli that playpens, diaper  pins, and cribs are “symbols of oppression.”  Ulli disagrees.

“Ah, Becca, every housewife is not Emma Bovary,” objected Ulli, mending overalls.

“Oh, yeah?  Well, you’re wrong, Ulli.  I see us as an entire nation of Sleeping Beauties!”

Jaffee’s plain, brisk style is both funny and touching as she describes Becca’s dramatic life, witnessed at every turn by Ulli. When the two women vacation with their children at the beach, there is a rare period of calm:  their husbands join them only on weekends, and they are happier without them.   The bond of friendship is stronger than the bond of marriage.

The years roll by.  Becca attends a consciousness raising grou0, writes poetry, and falls in love with her impotent poetry teacher.  When Becca’s husband learns about the poetry teacher, he calls it an “affair” and threatens to divorce Becca and take away their two daughters. Eventually he leaves  Becca for a younger woman, his student assistant.  But at least Becca still has her daughters.

Women take care of women in this novel, and when Ulli gets sick, Becca cares for her when Ulli’s husband and son pretty much opt out. Perhaps the men don’t care enough, or can’t let themselves feel enough.   I sniveled and cried over Ulli’s illness (a brain tumor), but the novel is more hopeful than sad.  If the U.S. had a Virago press, Adult Education would undoubtedly be a women’s best-seller.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

I used to be in the modernist camp of Virginia Woolf groupies.  What changed my mind?  The snobbery.

I am still a fan. I adore The Years (which I wrote about here), To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.   But a recent rereading of some of W’s early work reminded me of her unsubtle early “classism.”  Is anyone more annoying than  Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine of Night and Day?  Katharine has a sense of humor, but is she intelligent?  Woolf writes, “The quality of her birth oozed into Katharine’s consciousness from a dozen different sources as soon as she was able to perceive anything. Above her nursery fireplace hung a photograph of her grandfather’s tomb in Poets’ Corner, and she was told in one of those moments of grown-up confidence which are so tremendously impressive to the child’s mind, that he was buried there because he was a ‘good and great man.'” Naturally, Denham, the earnest young man Katharine dislikes on their first meeting, falls in love with Katharine instead of the plainer Mary Datchet, the radical office worker who is the only really interesting character in the novel.  But beauty, class, and dullness win.    And that makes Woolf more traditional in her first books than were some of her female predecessors, like George Eliot.

Woolf writes so beautifully.  Does anyone write more beautifully?  But I prefer her essays to her novels these days.  The Common Reader is deceptively simple, a book of Woolf’s literary criticism that doesn’t sound like criticism.  Now that I’m older, I realize the ideas are not always original, but the style is.  Who has better summed up the problems in translation, in any language, than Woolf in “The Russian Point of View”?  And I dearly love her brilliant essay about the even more brilliant George Eliot.

But Woolf is so snide.  She is malicious in “The Patron and the Crocus” about Henry James, the American who tries too hard but doesn’t really understand England, in her view, and she is horrifically snobbish in “Modern Fiction” about the realistic fiction of Galsworthy, Wells, and Bennett.  She writes, “If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”

Well, I love modernism, but I so much prefer D. H. Lawrence to Woolf.   Woolf may be a lesbian, which is part of her appeal these days, but Lawrence was equally elegant and more egalitarian.

And I am very keen on “the materialists,” who do not write as well as Woolf but deserve better than that slinging of arrows.  Surely “the quality of…birth” doesn’t have to  “ooze.”  Woolf is brilliant, but I find I can’t read more than one of her books a year now.  And, honestly, I have to ask, Has she stood the test of time?  For most, but not for me.

Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, or Take Three Tenses

Rumer Godden

I’ve never quite known how to classify Rumer Godden:  are her books classics?  Are they pop fiction?  Do we admit we read Rumer Godden? Or do we not mention her?

When Virago began to reissue Godden’s work in 2013, my problem was solved:  her books were respectable. And though I had read many of her novels, Virago published some titles I’d never heard of. And so I recently read Godden’s 1945 novel A Fugue in Time, which was published as Take Three Tenses in the U.S. Why did I read it?  Because of science fiction writer Jo Walton’s post at

Walton wrote in 2013:

You won’t believe how delighted and astonished I am to see A Fugue in Time back in print. It’s been out of print and impossible to find for my whole lifetime. I’ve only owned it myself for a relatively short time (thank you for finding it for me, Janet!), and it’s probably the book I have most frequently read from libraries. It’s in print! And I can therefore recommend it in good conscience!

Walton writes a fascinating piece in which she says it is science fiction.  I think it is more of a ghost story, but it can be read as literature or SF too. Time overlaps:  the present, past, and future happen at once.  In a single paragraph, Godden sometimes switches from the perspective of a character in the 1940s to that of a character in the 19th century.

Number 99 Wiltshire Place has been leased for 99 years by the Dane family, and the house and family are intertwined.  Godden experiments with time, ghosts, and modernism:  she alludes to E. M. Forster’s Howards End,  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker.”

The characters struggle with their feelings for the house. The plot centers on the end of the lease.   Rolls, the last tenant, a retired general,  is furious when he learns from a  lawyer  that he cannot renew the lease, and that the owner intends to pull down the house.  Distressed, he knows his time is up.  And so he experiences the past, present, and future all at once, and Godden writes it all in present tense, with much poetic repetition of words, alliteration and assonance,  as well as the frequent repetition of lines of T. S. Eliot.

Rolls especially doesn’t want to leave the plane tree in the garden, which is like the wych elm tree in Howards End, representing the long history of the house.  Godden writes of the plane tree,

The roots of the plane-tree are under the house. Rolls liked to fancy, sometimes, lately, that the plane-tree was himself. Its roots are in the house and so are mine, he said.

‘You could find another house,’ Mr Willoughby had suggested.

‘I could but I would not,’ Rolls had answered, ‘and where could I find another tree?’… I am that tree, said Rolls.

He flattered himself. The plane-tree is more than Rolls, as is another tree of which Rolls truly is a part; it is a tree drawn on parchment, framed and hung over the chest in the hall by the grandfather clock. Selina draws it, marking the Danes in their places as they are born and die, making a demarcation line in red ink for the time they come to live in the house in the autumn of eighteen forty-one.

The women of the family have always been oppressed–until now, during World War II, when Rolls’ American great-niece, Griseld, shows up on his doorstep, an ambulance driver needing a place to live.  Rolls is not thrilled about introducing a new generation to the house.  He thinks of his mother Griselda, who wanted to travel in the 19th century but was always pregnant and died in childbirth with Rolls.  Her husband insisted on spending vacations in Scotland.  And Rolls’ very intelligent older sister  Selina, who could have been a CEO of a corporation, takes over the house after Griselda’s death. She turns it into Wuthering Heights  after her father brings home Lark, the orphaned daughter of a singer.  Lark, neglected and denied education, is Heathcliff to  Selina’s Hareton.  Rolls, in love with Lark,  is Catherine.  Years later, Griseld is very much like Selina but also like a second-generation Cathy.

Some of Godden’s later books are more subtle, including China Court, another story of a house, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Fugue in Time/Take Three Tenses. Godden’s best novels, in my opinion, are the autobiographical Kingfishers Take Fire and her fascinating nun book, In This House of Brede.  I have loved them all, though.


What Makes a Women’s Novel a Women’s Novel? Men Say Romance, I Say Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates

I love to sink into novels that capture the emotional and intellectual experience of women.  But what is a women’s novel?  How can I define it?   During a freezing week in February, I read  Alison Lurie, Daphne du Maurier, Alice Adams, Mary McCarthy, and Barbara Pym.  What do these writers have in common?  Not much.  And yet I refer to them as women’s novels, though conceivably men do read George Eliot and possibly Barbara Pym.

Last year, two men thought they could define women’s novels.  Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World, and  Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, both wrote bizarre articles about the romance genre. And that struck me as deeply cynical.

“What do women want?”  Charles asked last August in  the opening sentence of his bubbly feature article in The Washington Post about a panel on romance novels at the bookstore Politics and Prose. “…The economic power of reading women was on full display Friday night…. The event was a welcome if late acknowledgment that romance accounts for a full third of all the fiction sold in the United States. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, you may be dead.”

It did get my heart racing–because I was appalled!  How about the economic power of the rest of us?

Robert Gottlieb’s article in The New York Times, a round-up of romance novels, is  witty and enjoyable, and mocks the stereotypical characters in romance and  the elements of soft porn in romance.  But I gathered that we women were not supposed to notice his contemptuous tone, unless we are the smart women, the ones in on the joke.  He divides his short reviewettes into witty snippets about the “He,” “She,” and “They.” The article begins:

He: Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset, Earl Clyvedon, Duke of Hastings, whose face “put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame” — “the perfect specimen of English manhood,” whose “opinion on any number of topics” is sought after by men and at whose feet “women swooned,” yet whose tragic childhood has left him determined never to marry and, above all, never to father a child who might suffer as he had.

Very funny, and yet the effect is weirdly alienating.  I despise romance novels, but (1) why is the very literary Gottlieb writing about them? and  (2),  Why is The New York Times reviewing romance novels at all?

Well, if marketing departments (do newspapers have marketing departments?), determine the content of book review pages, I am very unhappy.

WHAT WOMEN’S NOVELS HAVE I BEEN READING?  I loved Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites,  a  dramatic novel that begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and  sister Celia,  “parasites.” Are they or not?  The rest of the novel explores the question. I think this is du Maurier’s best novel, even better than Rebecca.

But my favorite of the lot was Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates.  Lurie won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for Foreign Affairs, and is one of those writers who, like Mary McCarthy, must be due for a revival. In fact, she shares with McCarthy a taste for  academic satire:  several of her books are set in college towns, not unlike the one portrayed in McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (which I wrote about here).

In The War Between the Tates, Lurie describes the breakdown of the middle-class Tate family in 1969, a year of upheaval and social change.  Lurie writes partly from the point of view of Erica, an unhappy faculty wife, and partly from the point of view of Brian, an arrogant, manipulative political science professor who has an affair with a student.  This absorbing novel is also a satire of life in a college town, with elements of Lysistrata.

The well-educated Erica, who took Greek in college but is now confined to the role of housekeeper and mother, is unhappy even before she learns that Brian is having an affair.  She  absolutely hates her teenage children.  And she knows that if they are obnoxious, it must be her fault.  All the publications say so.

Erica is in tears and has no one to talk to: Brian is at a conference. Lurie writes,

She is—or at least she was—a gentle, rational, even-tempered woman, not given to violent feelings. In her whole life she cannot remember disliking anyone as much as she now sometimes dislikes Jeffrey and Matilda. In second grade she had briefly hated a bulky girl named Rita who ate rolls of pastel candy wafers and bullied her; in college freshman year a boy with a snuffle and yellowed nylon shirts who followed her around everywhere asking her to go out with him. She had, in the abstract, hated Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, etc., but never anyone she had to live with and should have loved—had for years and years warmly loved.

Something is in the air in the late 1960s.  Her best friend, Danielle, is divorced, and involved in a group called Women for Human Equality Now (Brian refers to them as Hens.)  Students are protesting sexism and the Vietnam War.  And Brian has an affair with Wendy, a graduate student who works very hard at seducing him.

But when Wendy finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she goes to Erica to apologize before leaving town.  Erica deduces that Wendy is pregnant and throws Brian out of the house.   Erica tells Brian he must marry Wendy,  but he has other ideas.  And then  Zed, Wendy’s mentor and owner of the Krishna Bookstore, turns out to be Erica’s old friend from Greek class, Sandy Finkelstein.  She has some male support, though it is clear there will be no romance.

Lurie is a brilliant writer, graceful, sharp, and comical.  I was utterly absorbed in this and do feel like bingeing on all of her books.  This is a women’s book for women and men.  I do feel like recommending it to my husband.  He likes to read a certain percentage fo women’s books every year.  Even though there is nothing specifically called “men’s novels,” I read more women’s novels than men’s and he reads more men’s novels than women’s.  It seems natural, doesn’t it?

What are your favorite women’s novels?

A Primer on Old Age: Grace and Frankie

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie

I am getting attention from younger men lately:  they courteously help me in the supermarket.  I travel light on airplanes, but a charming young woman volunteered to help me hoist my light suitcase into the overhead bin.  I am partly amused, partly insulted.  I am strong.  I bicycle.  I do not perceive myself as old–yet.  When exactly will I be old?  In my seventies?  In my eighties?

How does one learn to be old in the twenty-first century? Sure, there’s Cicero’s On Old Age (De Senectute),  Margaret Drabble’s  The Dark Flood Rises, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age.  Do I plan to revisit these books?  Science fiction might be useful.

One of the best primers on old age is, surprisingly, the Netflix show Grace and Frankie.  I shouldn’t be surprised:  Jane Fonda, a co-star and co-producer, has always been in the progressive vanguard.  The 70-year-old heroines, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin),  move into a beach house after their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) announce they are gay and are leaving their wives to marry each other.  In one scene, Grace stands at the top of a steep staircase that leads down to the beach house and then throws her suitcase down the stairs. I thought, “Something might break!” And then I realized: “She’s smart.  This way she doesn’t strain a muscle (or worse).”

Grace, the founder and retired CEO of a cosmetics company, and Frankie, a hippie artist, are an odd couple, but are not irritating like The Odd Couple.  The two women dislike each other, but become friends as they help each other move on from the pain dealt them by their exes.  In one episode, they decide to go back to work, but come home at the end of the day and put a good face on having struck out.   In another episode, Frankie talks to Grace about vaginal dryness and makes an organic lube from yams.  And after  Grace discovers that using a vibrator hurts her wrist, she and Frankie design  a vibrator appropriate to aging women and go into business together.

I’m not thinking about the future.  Still, I am making my own notes for the primer. The body is high-maintenance.  You have to keep moving: walk, bicycle, stretch, and lift weights, or you lose muscle and bone mass.  (You get it back if you exercise.)

And did you know an  e-reader is easier on the wrists and forearms than holding an enormous 19th-century novel?  (I had to ice my forearm while reading Middlemarch.  Yes, really.)