How to Get Sloppy: Ovid in Exile

This spring I read and very much enjoyed Ovid’s The Black Sea Letters, Book 1 (Epistulae ex Ponto), in Latin.  Written in exile in Tomis on the Black Sea, this little-read collection of epistolary verse is brilliant and fascinating.

Exiled from Rome in 8 A.D. by Augustus for carmen et error (a poem and an error), the poet Ovid  wretchedly describes his imitation of life in a land assailed by  fierce storms and extremes of temperature.  He lives among the smelly Tomitae barbarians and their bellicose neighbors, the Getae. In his elegiac letters home, he reminds his influential friends that he is the only Roman exile in this barbaric land so far from Rome, and he hopes they will plead his case and hustle him back closer to Rome, if not to Rome itself. He reminds them he was exiled for a fault, not a crime.

Exile also means he has lost the will to write elegantly.  Circumstances are far from ideal.  It’s not as though he has poetry readings, the theater,  or dinner parties to keep him up to snuff.    He has no incentive to polish his writing now.  He is homesick for Rome and the life of a celebrity poet of equestrian rank; he misses his wife and daughter; and may he just mention the horror of  daily deadly faceoffs with bellicose men waving spears.  He reminds his highly-placed friends of their obligation  to him, even though association with him may put them in danger.  He reminds them that his books are not banned:  they are still in libraries in Rome.  Alas, there are no libraries in rough Tomis.   There are no poetry readings, either.

Many writers know what it is to be in exile–and I don’t mean literally.  Many are in exile in the 21st century from the 20th century, when publishing throve, and thus lose the incentive to polish.  Of course Ovid’s apology for his work is merely rhetorical: Roman poets conventionally apologize or their lack of skill, while meaning the opposite.  But many of us do take it literally.  The provincial publications for which gentle housewives wrote book and movie reviews between loads of laundry have “folded.” We may not live in Tomis on the Black Sea–we may live where we have always lived–and because we have always written, we continue to write, but this is the scribble-and-post age.  We polish less.

Anyway, as I read Ovid, I kept putting asterisks and writing “BLOG!” beside passages.

Here is one of my favorites.  In the lines below, Ovid  is depressed.  My translation is slangy, and, sorry, it doesn’t capture the poetry or the literary devices or the tone or reflect the sophistication of rhetorical devices.  It’s all I’ve got. We all do our best, but it’s poetry. Go get the Peter Green if you want elegance.

Publius Ovidius Naso addresses Maximus here (and refers to himself as Naso):

Your old friend Naso—once not the least of your friends—
asks you to read his words, Maximus.
Don’t look for my former flair
lest you seem unaware of/insensitive to my exile.
You perceive how idleness corrupts a slothful body,
just as water, if it is not moving, acquires a taint.
The skill I used to have at spinning poetry
is failing and lessened by neglect.
These things also, which you read, if you believe me, Maximus,
I write forced out with an unwilling hand.


Ille tuos quondam non ultimus inter amicos,
ut sua verba legas. Maxime, Naso rogat,
in quibus ingenium desiste requirere nostrum,
5cernis ut ignavum corrumpant otia corpus,
ut capiant vitium, ni moveantur, aquae,
et mihi siquis erat ducendi carminis usus,
deficit estque minor factus inerte situ.
haec quoque, quae legitis, (siquid mihi. Maxime, credis),
scribimus invita vixque coacta manu.

Quotes of the Week from Alix Kates Shulman’s “Burning Questions”

Is Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions the most underrated novel of the ’70s?

When we remember women’s fiction of the ’70s, we think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (the American edition was not published until 1971), Erica Jong’s  Fear of Flying (now a Penguin classic), and Marilyn French’s best-seller, The Women’s Room. 

These books have their place in the feminist canon.  But Alix Kates Shulman’s sharp, funny second novel, Burning Questions, is their equal or perhaps a notch or two up.  If Philip Roth had written this tour de force, we’d be worshipping at the shrine.  This chronicle of a woman’s life, from Indiana girl to New York Beatnik to housewife to radical feminist, also delineates the growth of the Women’s Liberation movement in the ’60s and ’70s.

Open Road Media e-book

Shulman treats serious issues, but has a light touch. I am laughing over the antics and reflections of Zane, the bright, nerdy, Midwestern overachiever narrator.  And as I read I am underlining passages. Zane was a Hoosier of the ’50s, I was a Hawkeye of the ’70s, but we were both Midwestern women of different eras looking for meaning that would cost at the least a geographical change.

Zane was always different.  As a child in Babylon, Indiana, she tries to dig a hole to China.  She is tolerated by her peers but considered weird:  she skipped a grade in school, plays chess, and is on the debate team in high school.

Her parents dissuade her from moving to New York straight out of early graduation from high school, so she attends community college for two years first.  After earning her associate’s degree in the late ’50s, she moves to Greenwich Village, hoping to mingle with artists and writers. But after a week’s wandering around the city, she desperately realizes she will never meet anyone this way.  So she contacts the friend of a friend, who turns out to be a beatnik.  And  Zane, an excellent student, quickly perfects her role as Beatnik poet’s girlfriend.

As always, I was a quick and ardent student, purifying my line, learning in minute detail the dos and don’ts of beatnik life. ( Do: divest yourself of property. Get on welfare. Fuck. Learn a craft. Renounce your past. Don’t: read anything with a circulation of over five thousand. Be a joiner. Stay sober. Tolerate the word beatnik.) Others, with achievements or credentials above suspicion, might take the rules into their hands and display a weakness for frilly clothes or indulge a taste for restaurant life, disdain dope, eschew sex, express jealousy, read tabloids or crime fiction. But I did nothing even slightly suspect, afraid that a small mistake would show me up as an imposter

Shulman’s descriptions of Zane’s job as a temp secretary are also illuminating.  When Zane is assigned a broken typewriter , her savvy colleague Nina  guides her to an illicit storeroom that belongs to another department. They help themselves to a state-of-the-art typewriter and office supplies.  (Zane doesn’t really want anything, but Nina explains it’s their obligation to steal from the corporate publishing company that is exploiting them.)

Nina’s supply room turned out to be only the entranceway to a whole underground life she had created for herself outside and inside the office. The next day, as promised, she brought me several books, among them an illustrated volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 1958 yearbook, Montaigne’s Essays , and a small novel by Colette.

“I didn’t know what you like, but these seemed safe. This company doesn’t have the greatest list. The pickings vary every season.”

“Did you … take these?”

“Does that worry you? Here—” she said, taking the books back and writing something in their flyleaves. “Now everyone will know they really belong to you.”

I opened the books. To Zone, for those old Paris days, Love, Colette. Second-best wishes from your friend Will . I put the books in my bottom drawer and thanked her.

Whether we were Beats, hippies, punks, yuppies, Gen-Xes, or whatever comes later, most of us have tried to fit in with  peers who pride themselves on having no rules, or worked in offices where rebels are sticking it to the man.  Like Zane, I never particularly needed extra paperclips or post-its, but it was fun hanging out with the Ninas anyway.

And now I must race through to the end.

Still Pertinent: Women’s Lit of the ’60s & ’70s

Women are marching for their rights. Wait, didn’t we do that decades ago?

And I wonder:  will Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) EVER be out of date? Does it mean as much to women now as it did then?

I read it in my pink bedroom when I was 13 or 14.  I borrowed it from a friend’s mother, a  political activist. I had never read anything like it. “Far out,” as I occasionally said back then.  (No one ever said, “it blew my mind, ” except the Mod Squad.)   Friedan was inspired to do research  when her survey of Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion revealed they were unhappy housewives.  And so she wrote about history, the psychology, politics, the media, and the image of women in American society.  Although it may not have changed my life, it did change my ideas about possibilities.

It wasn’t just  sociological and political feminist books that influenced me then:  I was always a narrative person.  Popular literary fiction of the ’60s and ’70s had a great effect.  American women were writing literature about rebellious women experimenting with sex roles and sex.  Think Sue Kaufman’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Here is a list of some less well-known books of the time that have stood up surprisingly well.  And please let me know your own favorites!

1.  In Sheila Ballantyne’s brilliant out-of-print novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen (1975), housework is driving the heroine, Norma Jean, crazy. Her husband, a professor, thinks her place is in the kitchen, and her three children are non-stop needy unless she parks them in front of cartoons.  She hasn’t been alone in six years, nor has she made any art.  Ballantyne’s bold style and attention-deficit shifting of Norma Jean’s consciousness make this immensely entertaining.

2.  Alix Kates Shulman is best known for Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, but my favorite is her controversial novel, Burning Questions (1978), which inspired three fascinating letters to the New York Times defending the book after a reviewer trashed it.

Told in the form of a memoir, this bildungsroman is the story of a woman from Indiana who moves to New York in the  ’50s s, then  marries a lawyer and lives in square Washington Square in the ’60s,  and  then rebels and joins the Women’s Liberation movement. Some of it is serious, some of it is comical.  And since it has been a long time since I’ve read this, I will leave you with a quote from the opening chapter.

What makes a rebel?

If you had seen the flags waving in front of each frame house set on its neat carpet of lawn on Endicott Road or any of the surrounding streets in Babylon, Indiana, on a Flag Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, V-J Day, or even a particularly fine Sunday after the War (World War II), you would never have guessed it possible that a fanatical radical was incubating there.

There is much humor, as well as an insightful description of the inspiration and confusion of the feminist movement.

3. Gail Godwin The Odd Woman (1974).  This small masterpiece explores a Southern woman’s personal and academic life in a time of unstable  jobs. Godwin’s sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract  is soon to expire, is utterly realistic (Godwin herself has a Ph.D. and taught at the University of Iowa). But what can Jane do? Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.  She  is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties, reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Her married friend Sonia, a tenured professor, is in her corner, but there are no openings at the college. And the rest of her close relationships are long-distance.

Such a great book, one of Godwin’s best.

4.  Lois Gould’s novel, A Sea Change (1976), is edgy, shocking, radical, and anti-male, and would never be published today.  This allegory about violence against women captures the  anger of radical Second Wave feminists (which, believe me, never translates well).  But I found it fascinating.

The protagonist, Jessie Waterman, a former model, lives in a brownstone in a dangerous neighborhood in New York with her sexist husband, Roy, who frequently refers to her as a “crazy cunt.” When a black man robs the apartment and rapes her with his gun, she decides ironically that they are intimate enough for her to refer to him as B.G.   Traumatized by violence, she moves with her daughter and stepmother to a summer home on Andrea Island, where Roy visits on weekends by helicopter. And when he goes away to Europe, Jessie is relieved to be free of him, and she and her best friend, Kate, become lovers.  How will they survive a hurricane and a male intruder?  Jessie plays (becomes?) the man.

You can read the entire post I wrote about this strange book at my old blog here.)

5.  The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer in 1970.  The masterly stories in this collection were published between 1944 and 1969. It was the era of the polymath, of a love of arcane multi-syllabic words. These perfectly-wrought stories, set in Europe, New England, and the West, are both subtle and shocking; her descriptions and dialogue are precise and pellucid. Does she go too far for our pseudo-sensitive smiley-face sensibilities? Are her New England spinsters too rich, mean, and snobbish for the modern reader? Is the shocking culture clash between Americans and Germans after Nuremberg too graphic? (It is a horrifying story.) Are the pretentious teachers with new master’s degrees too condescending? (Yes, they are, but that’s so realistic!) Is the obese philology student in Heidelberg too monstrous: she eats whole cakes, uses a sucker as a bookmark, and ominously talks about a dead thin twin. ( I’m fat, and not at all offended!) What about the cruise captain who exaggerates his racial prejudice (or does he?) to tease a liberal young woman described as “a natural victim”? (At the end, she is far from a victim.) These characters are vividly portrayed, realistic, and are sometimes as obnoxious as people we know in “real life.  You can read the rest of my blog here.

Underrated: Monica Dickens’s Flowers on the Grass

Monica Dickens

One day, a decade or so ago,  I  discovered a scruffy paperback of Monica Dickens’s  The Heart of London at Half Price Books.  I was heartened by the discovery, because I’d had trouble finding a simpatico used bookstore, and this chain store stocked Mrs. Oliphant and other interesting middlebrow English novels (they disappeared when the store relocated).  The eccentric owner of the other used bookstore had whimsically refused to sell me Abdel Rahman Munif’s The Trench, the second book in the Cities of Salt trilogy.

“You won’t like it.”  “No, I will like it.”  “The first one is charming; this one isn’t.”  “No, it wasn’t charming, and I do want this book.” Was it because I was black?  (No, I’m white.)  Was it because I was a woman?  (Well, I am a woman.)  “Is he allowed not to sell you something in the store?”  a friend asked. He went out of business, which is a pity, because he had a good collection.

But my flight to the chain was indirectly responsible for my discovering Monica Dickens (1915-1992), so it was a good thing. Monica was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter and the author of many brilliant, entertaining, touching novels and memoirs, among them  Mariana (Persephone) and The Winds of Heaven (Persephone). Her memoir, One Pair of Hands, is a comic masterpiece about her experiences as a cook-general after she was kicked out of drama school.  Most of her books have been reissued as paperbacks and e-books by Bloomsbury Reader.

Recently I read her 1950 novel, Flowers on the Grass, in a battered red hardback, which says on the title page (and I’m not sure if it’s a stamp or printed):


I love this cover, though it is not the edition I have!

Does anyone know about this Book Club?

I absolutely love this novel. Dickens’s prose is witty, her characters vivid, the plot is deftly drawn, and I was moved by the events of the story. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of Daniel, a charming, restless, capricious artist who never stays in one place long.  In eleven chapters we meet a landlady, a maid, a manipulative man with epilepsy, an unhappy student at a progressive school, nurses, and others. The bold Daniel, even when drunk, swearing, or obnoxious, has a good sense of humor.   And, yes, he has an interesting, if not always positive, effect on the other characters.

The first chapter, “Jane,” sets the tone and the chain of events in motion.  Jane, Daniel’s wife, pregnant with their first child, has persuaded  Daniel to settle down in a cottage in the country near London.  She has known Daniel since childhood–they are cousins–but he has had an itinerant, unstable life, expelled from Eton, exiled to the home of a great-aunt in Capri, and then going from one job to another in England.  During the war, he was a prisoner, and afterwards Jane soothes him and persuades him to marry her.  But they drift around London at first.

Dickens describes Daniel’s peripatetic tendencies  with compassion and perception.

In the self-contained university which grew up in the camp Daniel had discovered that he was a better teacher than he would ever be an artist.  Long ago in Naples he had suspected that he would never paint or design well enough to make a living, or even to please himself.  He admitted this now and found a job teaching architectural drawing and lecturing on Italian art at a technical college in Chelsea.  He and Jane lived up and down the King’s Road, hopping from room to horrid room, into a leaky flat and out again, like birds not knowing where to build their nest.

Jane unobtrusively stabilizes Daniel after she inherits enough money to buy the cottage. And he is very happy with the garden.  But a tragedy occurs: Jane is electrocuted by an electric kettle.  (A similar horrifying electrocution via a refrigerator happens to the character Stephanie in A. S. Byatt’s Still Life.  And, come to think of it, Stephanie’s husband is named Daniel, too.)  The loss of Jane sends Daniel drifting from place to place and job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he drinks and womanizes.

In the chapter called “Ossie,” a librarian named Ossie  is concerned about the effect of Jane’s death on Daniel. Daniel seems reckless, indifferent, and never talks about it; he  lives in a dirty boarding house.  Ossie, who was a buffoon both at school and Oxford and now collects bad jokes, suddenly organizes himself to move to the cottage to look after Daniel, but falls in loves with the countryside, finds a girlfriend,  and a new lease on life.  He learns he doesn’t have to play the buffoon.  But nothing lasts forever.  Daniel decides to move on, and Ossie, too, must start a new life.

In “Doris,”  the maid at a small hotel, Doris, finds Daniel charming, if eccentric, and helps him keep a dog illicitly in his room.  She also smuggles out his liquor bottles and undresses him when he passes out.   It’s only a matter of time till the hotel owner finds out.  Always a friend of the underdog, he helps Doris get her job back.

In “Valerie,” Daniel is working for an advertising firm. He enjoys the company of his sexy landlady, Valerie, a widow who humorously poses for his drawings for roles required by the products like laxatives and pep pills:  the sketches have titles like  the wife of The Man Who Lost His Job. But Daniel resents her domesticity,  especially her friendship with the repulsive, obsequious lodger, Mr. Piggott, because he wants all the attention himself..  There is a point where they talk of marriage, but somehow Valerie cannot.

I very much enjoyed this book.  Monica is such a skillful writer, somehow interspersing charm and humor with the real sorrow many of these characters experience.

And, just so you’ll know: Two  of Monica Dickens’ novels are  free at  the Internet Archive, The Winds of Heaven (which I wrote about at my blog in 2014) and The Nightingales Are Singing.

Musings on Anna Karenina on a Spring Day

Anna Karenina in Vintage Russian Classics Series

On a sunny spring day in 2017, I sat on the porch rereading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I was sipping tea and reading a hefty Vintage paperback edition of the Maude translation of the novel instead of preparing a lunch from a Martha Stewart recipe for cousins visiting from Marshalltown.  Knowing they would be late, I lounged on the Barcalounger, surrounded by bookcases and boxes filled with the overflow from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale. The branches on the maple tree in the yard had finally leafed and the porch was in shade and alternate wavy bars of light. One cat perched on the top of the  Barcalounger  chewing my hair (she likes my shampoo) and the other sat on my lap tapping me with her paws to be petted.

My first Anna, the David Magarshack translation

I cannot tell you how many times I have read Anna Karenina. Or rather I can, but won’t. I first read it under inauspicious circumstances at the age of fifteen, after my father semi-kidnapped me from my grandmother’s house, with my grandmother and mother sobbing for me to stay, and even physically trying to restrain me. (My father was separated from my mother, and it was the first time he had paid attention to me in my life, perhaps to get back at my mother, she thought.)  We camped in the basement of Dad’s friend the poet’s house in Coralville, where I was “literally,” as the poet said, sleeping under the workbench among his carpentry tools. I spent hours reading Anna Karenina on the cot under the workbench, under a glaring light, because I had no privacy and there was nothing to do.  Corvalville was too far away from Iowa City to see my friends every day after school.  And so I was stuck with Anna, though I’m not sure she left much impression on me.

The next time I read it I was 20, and I had been married for a year to a kind older man. It is foolish to marry when you are young, I realized as I watched my husband get drunk night after night, pass out on lawns, and eventually get fired from his  job for leaving the  premises to go drinking in a bar.  “Why does he drink so much?” a friend hissed at me.  I tried to cover for him, as one does.  “He only does this at parties.”  The cover-up was part of the relationship with an alcoholic.

Illustration of Anna and Karenin at the races by Angela Barrett (Folio Society)

The Rosamund Bartlett translation (Oxford)

I had to leave and I knew it.  I had to find the energy to leave. As so often in these circumstances, there is both co-dependence and a flattening fatigue before you get your act together.  An intense reading of Anna Karenina helped me escape and process the situation.  I identified with her and imagined myself in the 19th-century Petersburg society, where  I fantasized that would fit like a charm, despite my jeans, t-shirts, walking sandals, and drip-dry hair, and the fact that my very average prettiness had been much exaggerated by my mother. Still, I  perfectly identified with Anna’s revelation that she did not love Alexis Karenin, just as I knew I didn’t really love my Alexis.   My situation was not as sticky–no children, no high society, no house–but eventually I had to face it.  I went off with my clothes and books in a shopping cart, like a bag lady.

I was in my fifties when I last read it. After a certain age, you read differently.  There is less identifying with characters; more focus on less familiar parts of the text and subtexts.   I concentrated more on Kitty and Levin during that reading than Anna and Vronsky.  But there is one constant in my reading and rereading:  I prefer the 1918  translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, which Tolstoy approved, to all the others.

I now snap up paperbacks of the Maude, because I see it being edged out by modern translations and worry that it may fall out of print altogether. You can’t have too many copies: sometimes I give them away. I like to have a copy of Anna Karenina in every room, says the Tolstoy-obsessed reader. When I leave off reading, I note the chapter number (the page number does no good) on a slip of paper and return to the book later in another edition in another room, between household tasks or while cooking. The strikingly designed red Vintage Russian Classics Series tome is my newest: I bought it for the print size, which is slightly larger than the print in my other copies: two Oxford editions, a paperback with the Maude translation and a hardcover with the new Rosamund Bartlett, the Modern Library edition of Constance Garnett, and a 1975 Folio Society edition with Rosemary Edmonds’ excellent translation.

Weddings, marriage, and infidelity: it’s all a big part of Anna Karenina. The critics say it is a family novel, and, indeed Tolstoy confided in his wife that what he loved about it was the family aspect. He did not entirely approve of Anna: he was inspired by fragments of Pushkin about an unfaithful wife; he also had seen the corpse of Anna Pirogova, a landowner’s mistress who committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. But during many drafts, he made her a more sympathetic character.   And He was influenced by the development of the European novel, especially French and English novels, says W. Gareth Jones in the 1995 introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition:

…Tolstoy showed that he had understood the development of the European novel, its capacity to range over society, to cram its pages with a throng of individualized characters and yet to maintain an overall design, and convey an author’s view of life.

And I personally find Anna very sympathetic.  She tends to excite controversy among reader. Some find Tolstoy’s portrait of her sexist; others find her selfish; still others love her. I love Anna in all her different facets:  Anna, graceful and animated in a black gown at the ball, dancing with handsome Vronsky; Anna, negotiating a truce between her adulteours brother Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, who is shattered at finding a note indicating he is having an affair with the former governess; Anna, terrified at the races when Vronksy’s horse falls and has to be shot. Ironically, later in the book, when Anna has fallen in love with Vronsky and wants to leave her husband but keep her son, her brother Stiva Oblonsky tries to persuade Karenin to divorce her. Tolstoy tars Stiva and Anna with the same brush:  they are  adulterers. But there is a double standard;  Stiva’s adultery is tolerated and Anna’s makes her an outcast and leads to tragedy.

When Anna coaxes Dolly to forgive Stiva for adultery, she is warm, listens closely, and feels compassion for Dolly’s grief.  Anna does not yet have her own marital problems.  Things are not complicated for her.  Her simplicity and honesty are obvious.  This exchange sums it up:

“‘But suppose the infatuation is repeated?’

‘It cannot be, as I understand …’

‘And you, would you forgive?’

‘I do not know, I cannot judge…. Yes, I can,’ said Anna, after a minute’s consideration. Her mind had taken in and weighed the situation, and she added, ‘Yes, I can, I can. Yes, I should forgive. I should not remain the same woman—no, but I should forgive, and forgive it as utterly as if it had never happened at all.’”

When I was young, and failed to understand the complexities of marriage, I identified completely with Anna.  Now that I do understand, I consider Karenin’s grief (he is repulsive, but he grieves), and Kitty’s new maturity after marriage, and her role in helping Levin’s dying brother.  Every time I read it I see a scene in a new way.

So back to the Barcalounger for more AK.  And, remember, any time you come to my house, there are plenty of copies for you to read!

River Biking & The Bronte Bibliomemoir Market

Glum but lovely scene on the trail.

There is a 100-mile linked-trail system in central Iowa:  long stretches and loops of  trails by rivers, through corn fields, soybean fields, prairie, parks, woods, small towns, and Des Moines, the capital.  The scenery is undramatic but gently green after a solid week of rain.  My spirit is decidedly damp.

There are even touristy things to do by bicycling standards.  You can eat disgusting fried food, delicious ice cream, or pie a la mode at diners in Adel, Redfield, and  Panora. You can stop at Angie’s Tea Room in Jefferson or lie down on a bench in a picnic shelter in Linden.  You can go wild in Des Moines or Madrid (pronounced Mad-rid) at pubs on the trail.  You can, under duress from your husband, bike to  Yale (not the university) and camp in a park not far from that tiny town.

Well, today I did none of the above.  I whizzed down hills, rode past lakes and rivers, and took a reading break by the river.

The countryside is ungroomed, but I found a pleasant place to contemplate the river.  I took the  thermos out of my pannier and drank tea while I read a bit of my latest e-book, Miranda K. Pennington’s  A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work.

This is the Year of the Bronte bibliomemoir:  earlier I read and was disappointed by Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage:  Anne Bronte and the Art of Life,  but I’m not far enough into Pennington’s light book to make a judgment. I will say this:  combining Bronte biography,  criticism, and memoir is a challenge for Ellis and Pennington.

Pennington has a light touch and has read Jane Eyre over and over since childhood.  She informs us:

These days I reread Jane Eyre once a year, and take doses of the others as necessary. Sometimes I consult them like an oracle or a Magic 8 Ball—I open to a random page and see what they have to say; it’s an idiosyncratic art of bibliomancy, a kind of sortes brontënae.

Very funny!


Eventually I put away my book and rode on. I’m always in the zone when the trail is flat.

The river was gushing in the background.

And then I came to the underpass.  Flooded, of course.  I should have known.

I ignored the Trail Closed sign. So many Trail Closed signs, and so often there is no need.  I walked my bike past the sign and looked in dismay.  Well, it was flooded, but the water didn’t look TOO deep.  Surely I’d ridden through worse?

I had not.

It was shallow for a turn of the wheel and then SPLASH!  I was almost swimming.

But a second later, before I had to abandon my bike, I was through.   My stretch pants were soaked four inches above my ankles, but I kept riding, riding, riding.   Once home I jumped into the bathtub and washed off all the pollutants (I hope).

And I’ll never bike through a river again.  Don’t do it!

And now I’m going to read my book!

NOTE TO SELF:  Write nothing about the Brontes in bibliomemoir-in-progress because the Bronte market is saturated.  In fact, scrap the bibliomemoir, because the bibliomemoir market is saturated. Turn the whole thing into an (a) novel, or (b)  imitation of Horace’s Ars Poetica.  Publish it in a spiral at Kinkos and distribute to relatives.  This is how my family published The Kinfolk Cookbook and many other strange family books.

In Which I Improve a Little Free Library & Dear Bike Lady

The Little Free Library fad caught on a few years ago.  At first I was excited.

People putting cute bookshelves-on-sticks in their yards.  People sharing books.  TAKE A BOOK, LEAVE A BOOK, the sign says.

And then there’s the decorative aspect. Can you match the color of the LFL to your house or flowers in your garden?  Yes, you can. The books, alas, don’t match. And so people tend to stock the LFLs  with Readers’ Digest Condensed Books from the ’50s.  Very disappointing.

The best book I have found in an LFL?  Hints from Heloise.  I ask you.  Can’t they do better?  I learned to add raw oatmeal to yogurt.

There are at least 20 Little Free Libraries within a 10-mile radius of my house.  Every few blocks somebody has planted a (mostly empty) bookshelf on his/her lawn.  There are LFLs on trails.  There is an LFL in front of the ice cream store.  (You won’t like the book selection:  stick to ice cream.) The Kiwanis have built an LFL on a trail in a suburban park. I did once find a book of Jean Kerr’s humor pieces, so I can’t complain about that. There was an LFL at the dog park, but the dog owners are not reading while their happy dogs are bounding around. They are chatting or sitting exhausted on benches.  Somebody removed the LFL. It just disappeared. I assume it was the parks workers.  Honestly, there were NO books in it! None.

On a recent sunny day,  I set out to improve an LFL.  Well, I went on a bike ride with some books to give away.

It was a big production:  in addition to my thermos, snacks, water bottle, jacket, purse, and bicycle lock.  I stuck two huge books in my bike pannier,   David Copperfield and Anna Karenina.  I don’t know how Dickens and Tolstoy  feel about Ann B. Ross, J. D. Robb,  and Fern Michaels, but now they have joined their ranks.

Somewhere there is an excellent LFL, but I have yet to find it.


Hannah (Lena Dunham, left) is told there’s no need to lock her bike.

I recently watched the delightful fourth season of “Girls.” I know I’m the last person on the planet to watch this, but my husband nad I honestly didn’t know or care what was going on when we tried the first season.  That means we were too old for it, would be my guess.

But Season Four is set in Iowa.  I was curious to see the HBO take on my state.  Hannah (Lena Dunham) is accepted in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and moves from New York to Iowa City; well, not the real Iowa City, because the University of Iowa wouldn’t give them permission  to film. But Hannah experiences loneliness, homesickness, and culture shock in the ersatz Iowa City.  She arrives at the Writers’ Workshop House happily on her pink bike. Then the tall woman on the steps, a fellow student, tells her not to bother to lock it.

“This is Iowa,” she tells Hannah.

I knew that would not end well.  And it didn’t.  When she emerges some hours later, the bike has been stolen.  (Two of my bikes were stolen in Iowa City.)

This becomes a very funny running gag: she gets two locks, chains the bike around the porch, and the bike is stolen again!




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