The Greeks & Raney

I found the following entry in my 2010 book journal.  Enjoy!

My regimen, now that teaching is over (“No more pencils, no more books, no more students’ dirty looks!”), is to read 200 pages of Greek history a week (for maybe two weeks). Why, I can’t tell you. I’m a language teacher, not a historian.  Classical literature is my passion and, as far as I’m concerned, the reason to read Greek.

But I’ve got my schedule:  a bit of Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History of Eleven Cities, followed by a smidgen of H. D. F. Kitto’s The Greeks. These two are good companion volumes:  Cartledge is modern and brisk, concisely attempting to explain the bare necessities; Kitto is more leisurely and fills in the gaps of what you need to know, because Cartledge’s book, for all its brevity, is not very well-organized.

Dear me!  Next thing you know I’ll be reading Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way.  No, Kitto is actually very good.  This may be one of my favorite books of the year.  I have some scholarly books on reserve at the library and hope one of them will be lucidly-written.  (It’s very tough to find a classicist who can actually write.)

Today I got sidetracked by a box of books on my porch.  Yes, I was lolling on the porch drinking green tea, perusing my Kitto, when a pink book caught my eye–have you noticed how everything is pink these days?–a novel, Raney, by Clyde Edgerton, which came out in 1985 (so the pink was probably not a style indicator).  And, of course, I’m terribly carried away by this Southern small-town novel. Edgerton’s voice reminds me slightly of James Wilcox’s.  That Southern humor is strong.  I can’t resist it.

The heroine, Raney, is a 24-year-old musician, a Baptist, a community college student, a teetotaler, and the daughter of a general store owner.  She is in love with Charles, a sophisticated assistant librarian from Atlanta at the community college, but they have many differences, as becomes clear before their wedding.  She is so upset by his drinking at the wedding rehearsal that she says she will never forget it.  Charles’ propensity for social drinking and serving wine to guests continues to be a major conflict. Raney is a simple soul:  her straightforward, honest, slightly ungrammatical voice is touching and comical.

Although she’s a fervent conservative Baptist, with prejudices against the Episcopal church and Charles’ liberal ideas, she’s very likable, as is her dysfunctional family. But she can’t understand why Charles would drink alcohol at their own wedding.  And she has her reasons.

You would think a man could get married without getting drunk, especially after I explained that nobody in my family drunk alcohol except Uncle Nate, who was in the Navy in World War II, but got burned in combat on over fifty percent of his body, and caught pneumonia and had to be discharged from the Pacific….

Uncle Nate comes to our house in a taxi at any hour of the day or night, drunk, cussing his former wife, who’s dead–Joanne.  And when I say drunk, I mean so drunk he can’t get up the front steps without me and Mama and sometimes the taxi driver helping him…

Raney and Charles have other conflicts:  he is furious when her homey mother visits the house when they are out,  fights with Raney about her naive comments about “blacks” (she has never known a black person), and writes letters to the editor about the dangers of nuclear power plants.  Charles also has his prejudices:  he  dislikes Raney’s simple small-town family, though they include him in family activities, like fishing and camping, and ply him with fried okra and pie .

But their marriage is basically sound, and both parties will learn to accommodate the other.

This charming novel got passed around by my friends in the ’80s  but somehow I never got around to it. In a way it’s nice to have postponed the pleasure.  Now I can look forward to all of Edgerton’s books.

Nursing Home Lit: From B. S. Johnson to Clyde Edgerton

B. S. Johnson:  Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

B. S. Johnson: Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

As Baby Boomers explore “eldercare” options and help their parents move into assisted living facilities and nursing homes, some have written novels about the lives of the elderly.

Nonfiction is crucial for research, but fiction helps us emotionally understand the hidden culture of old age.

I felt the need to read about others’ experiences after a relative nearly died twice in two months in an assisted living facility.

And somehow I began to collect fiction about old age.  There is quite a lot of it.  Here are a few titles.

1.    Pre-Baby Boomer Nursing Home lit:   B. S. Johnson’s 1971 experimental novel, House Mother Normal.

house-mother-normal-  b. s. johnsonI read about this reissued novel recently in the TLS (part of my self-improvement program is to read literary criticism:  actually, the TLS is  fun to read, or I wouldn’t bother).

Johnson’s House Mother Normal consists of  interior monologues by the eight residents of a charity home for the elderly and the house mother.

The book is very short, and can be read in a couple of hours.  If you like Beckett or Joyce, you’re in luck.

But honestly this is a very easy “experimental” read.  Although the residents’ accounts of a  Social Evening at the home at first seem fantastic, their memories of the past are realistic.

You know things are not as they should be at the home, but it takes a while to put it all together.

Each monologue begins with some stats from the patient’s file.

Sarah, a 71-year-old widow, one of the most agile and alert of the residents, is concerned about the strange work assignments and the games organized by the house mother.  After dinner Sarah is put to work scraping labels off bottles, while some of the others roll paper to make Christmas crackers.

Sarah thinks,

“Good deed indeed, she must make something out
of all this, though it’s not sweated labour by
any manner or means, I will say that for her, it’s
not arduous, and she can’t get much for
these Christmas crackers they make…”

They are forced to play games.  When they play Pass the Parcel and the parcel is opened, Sarah tells us it’s shit.  You think, What is it really?  It can’t be shit, can it?

Then they play a game where the mobile residents push the ones in wheelchairs and they have a “tourney” with mops.

You keep thinking, Wait, this can’t be right.

What’s going on?

Charlie, a 78-year-od pianist, has been told after dinner to pour some liquid into bottles.  He thinks:

“Suppose this must be liquor of some sort.  My sense
of smell is nearly gone.”

He wonders if the house mother is selling it to clubs.

A few of the residents are so bewildered that their monologues are blank pages or only a few words on a page.

The abusive house mother’s monologue brings everything together.

“They are fed, they are my friends.  Is this not enough?”

The horrors of this home are endless.  The residents’ perceptions are surprisingly accurate.

But it ends with a metafiction.

Excellent novel, but now back to the traditional.

2..  At the heart of Clyde Edgerton’s  Lunch at the Piccadilly, a humorous, moving novel about residents in a nursing home, is Carl, the kind, dutiful, unexciting, unmarried nephew who visits Aunt Lil and drives her and her cronies to the Piccadilly for lunch.  Driving represents freedom for the residents, who are otherwise stuck gossiping on the porch. Lil hopes one day to drive home to her apartment.

lunch-at-the-piccadilly-edgerton3.  Tessa Hadley’s stunning novel, The London Train, begins with the death of  Paul’s mother in a nursing home.  He mourns her, but is relieved that her life in the home was not prolonged.  The administrator explained she had wandered out into the garden on the night of her death, making “one of her bids for freedom,” and was found 20 minutes later. The death seemed unrelated to the escapade.  (It is not nursing home fiction per se, but it is on my list anyway.)

london train tessa hadley4.  Jill McCorkle’s new novel, Life After Life, tops my Nursing Home Lit TBR list.  The description says it is about the residents, staffers, and neighbors of a retirement home.

Let me know if you have other recommendations for Nursing Home Lit.