What to Do When It’s Hot, Part 2: Reading Barbara Trapido at the Coffeehouse & Shades of Green

Prairie grass on the coffeehouse patio.

Prairie grass on the patio at the coffeehouse.

My friend Janet and I biked to the coffeehouse.

And then we got out our “girl books” to read,  because we were hot and tired.  I am reading Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack, and she is reading Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness.

Photo of book and coffee drink.

Photo of book and coffee drink.

The winner of the  Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction in 1982, Brother of the More Famous Jack came up as a recommendation at a couple of online sites.  It has a foreword by Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  Semple is a Trapido enthusiast.  She found the book at a library sale.  She has corresponded with the author.  She writes, “The first page was so charming it made my chest ache.”

It is slightly reminiscent of the early novels of Margaret Drabble (The Millstone, etc.).  The heroine, Katherine, a very pretty  girl who loves fashionable clothes and gets picked up by a middle-aged bisexual man at the bookstore, has applied to a university in philosophy.  The philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman, is very amused by her. He asks her what she reads.

Somewhat to my retrospective embarrassment, I remember telling him, among other things, that I thought Wordsworth had possibilities, that dI thought Jesus Christ had been a Utopian Socialist and that I didn’t like the sex in D. H. Lawrence.

It continues like this–very funny. When her bisexual friend John takes her to visit the Goldmans  for the weekend, it is awkward–she hadn’t realized it was her professor’s house.  But then she falls in love with the whole family:    Jane, the wife, always pregnant, would rather garden than clean; her oldest son, Roger, is a brilliant, moody musician; Jonathan, the next son, is a rebel who reads Finnegan’s Wake, Vogue, and comic books; Rosie is nine and gets on her mother’s nerves; and then there are the twins.

Katherine falls in love with Roger, but he is cold and controlling.  He criticizes what she reads, pretends to his parents he isn’t in a relationship with her, and occasionally snubs her when visits him at Oxford.. Eventually she realizes that he doesn’t love her so much.

Well, I won’t tell you what happens because I’m not done myself, but may I just whisper, Italy?  And the back tells me that she visits the Goldmans 10 years later.

I love the book!

And I don’t remember Elizabeth Taylor’s book, but I read it years ago and she is excellent.

Shades of Green.  It is the time of year when the shades of green change.

It is July 19, and the green is now silvery and the leaves are sagging and a little blowsy.

The green's a little blowsy now.

The green’s a little blowsy and worn out now.

I love summer.  I love rushing out of the house coatless.  I love the fresh green, and I love the worn-out green.  But how did it get to be mid-July?

I must enjoy the rest of the summer!

Coffee at the Borgias’ and Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

"Flora" (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto

“Flora” (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto

When I take the bus in my small city, I sense that I immediately rise from middle-class matron to upper-class termagent.  It is not like the tube; it is not like the Metro.

Everybody has a cold, everybody is poor, some are just out of prison and talking at the top of their voice about Jesus, and the majority are distracted by the panem et circenses of their phones.

Thank God for electronics, I think.

I jump off the bus and walk two miles from the mall to the bookstore.

I love to spend a day browsing at the bookstore.  I usually buy a book or two (when I have not spent my book budget at the Folio Society).  And I always buy a coffee, because it is nice to sit and sip and read.  I  know who makes a good latte.   Today, however, the barista is unfamiliar, older than most, a shifty blonde, and  averts her eyes throughout the transaction.

I speculate: On drugs? That is uncharitable, right? Even if I’m right, which I probably am, I should be thinking of this with concern and instead I am thinking in bus terms:  who is this person sitting next to me?

I decide to have just coffee.

She takes a long time getting the coffee.

I sip the coffee, immediately get cramps, throw out the coffee, and manage to walk back to the bus stop.

I hold it together until I get home. Thank God my husband can go out to get 7-Up and crackers.

So do you think the barista was a Borgia?

Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

H Is For Hawk macdonald 1406742829457Few books have been so lauded in the last year as Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, a memoir of her grief for her dead father, her training of a goshawk to fend off depression, and a short, creative biography of T. H. White, whose memoir The Goshawk was her inspiration and nemesis. MacDonald’s popular book won the Costa Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2014.

To prepare for this book, which was published this month here, I read The Goshawk.  White, best-known for his novel The Once and Future King, decided to train a goshawk, the wildest of hawks, after he left his job as an unhappy teacher at a public school. MacDonald first read The Goshawk  when she was a child, and was upset, as I was,  by many passages about Gos’s training.

Although White’s writing is extraordinarily graceful, I was nauseated by his account of the cruel training of Gos. He learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance, and the methods were unnecessarily rigid:  we learn all about White’s sado-mashochism. He kept the bird awake for three to nine days until Gos finally took food from his hand.  The bird was terrified.  Both man and bird were deadened with exhaustion.  And the training went on.

MacDonald, a researcher at Cambridge, is an expert falconer. When her father died in 2007, she  spiraled into a deep depression.  Finally she  decided to train a goshawk for the first time.   She had ordered the hawk from an aviary, and when she met the man with the bird at the quay, he was carrying two boxes with birds, the younger for another falconer.  He opened the boxes to check the  identity, and Helen fell in love with the first one, which happened to be the wrong one..

Although she tries to be poetic, her prose is overwritten and flowery.  Too many adjectives, and too many fragments.

Infinite caution.  Daylight irrigating the box.  Scratching talons, another thump.  ‘And another.  The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust.

And I ask myself:  syrupy and dusty?

She continues:

The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury . . . . She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Sadly, I had a picture of myself at a reading feeling uncomfortable because the book is over-dramatic and the prose is blowsy.

She asked if she could have the bird she liked, and he agreed to it.

MacDonald’s training of her bird, Mabel, is much more humane than White’s.  She and the bird have a relationship:  Mabel even likes to play.  But there are problems.  MacDonald is still depressed.  Her job at Cambridge is coming to an end.  And then there are some stresses with training Mabel.

Sometimes she retells White’s The Goshawk creatively from a third person point of view, and that does not work for me. She also writes a kind of psychoanalytic biography of him.

I gave up on the book halfway through.

I’m just not interested in falconry, and her writing is too florid for my taste.  I know that many have loved this, and I hope the quotes will encourage those of you who like such prose to seek it out.  I would give you my copy, but it’s an e-book!

Coffee to Go: Coffee in Life, Literature, and TV

costa-coffee-bloomsbury-10505095-largeWhen I was in London for a mere week last spring, I drank a lot of coffee. Every morning I rushed around the corner to Costa, where I drank something called an Americano.

I hoped the dose of caffeine would help me read maps.   It did not.  I was lost all over London, though it didn’t matter since I was just a tourist.  One late afternoon I turned the wrong way on Euston Road and ended up at the British Library.  I squinted at a Bronte manuscript, but the room was very dark and I needed caffeine to find where I was supposed to be.  I found a Starbucks.

Coffee used to be an important part of my life, and I have spent hours at the Sheep’s Head in Iowa City (long gone), the Runcible Spoon in Bloomington (still there), Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe in D.C. (still there), the Linger Longer in Allegany, Grounds for Celebration in Des Moines, Cafe Diem in Ames, Aromas in Omaha, Fresh Grounds in St. Paul, and Starbucks Starbucks Starbucks.  At an airport, Starbucks makes me feel at home.

When I was an adjunct,  I allowed a student to write a term paper on coffee. I wasn’t vested in the term paper thing after I learned from the department head that I could only give A’s or B’s.  If the students didn’t earn a B, I had to give them extra credit, and what a pain that was.  So, fine, if a student wanted to write a paper based on Starbucks brochures, let her.  I made her add nine more sources and called it a C (whoops, a B).

I prefer tea to coffee, but coffee is more romantic.  In the HBO series, Girls, writer-director-actress Lena Dunham plays Hannah, an Oberlin graduate who works at Cafe Grumpy in New York.  When a hunky doctor (Patrick Wilson) comes into Grumpy’s to complain that Grumpy’s trash is being dumped in his garbage cans, it leads to a brief affair with Hannah, who likes putting the  garbage in the cans in front of his brownstone.  Do you think if I went back in time…?  No.

There are also many books with coffee themes.  In Doris Lessing’s short story, “The New Cafe,” in her collection, The Real Thing, the narrator watches a growing friendship/flirtation between a handsome young man and various women over coffee and delicious cakes.  In Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 2004, the heroine, Sunshine, a baker at Charlie’s Coffeehouse, helps a good vampire fight the bad vampires.  (We all know the good vampire/bad vampire paradox.)  In Karl Ove Knausgaard’s’s My Struggle, Book 2, the narrator goes out for coffee every afternoon, but switches cafes every five days so he won’t have to chat with a barista.

There’s plenty of coffee in life, literature, and film  What are your favorite coffeehouses and coffee scenes?

London with Coffee # 7: A Day off from Tourism

I took a day off from my tour of London.

Take a bus or tube … I wasn’t up for it.

I did my laundry.

It takes all day if you don’t know how to set the electronic switches:  wash, extra-wash, spin, extra spin…

Then I mailed some packages.

I shipped my books home.

It had reached the point where I could barely carry them.

But buying books in London is a good thing, is it not?  I supported the London Review of Books shop, Foyles, and Skoob Books.  I wandered into some other shops, but didn’t find anything of interest.  We have some first-rate used bookstores at home, and only Skoob measured up.

The selection at Daunt was very much like Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

If I can get it in the U.S., I don’t buy it.

The shipping costs were ridiculous, but even if I’d bought another bag, I doubt I could have lugged it into the airport.  And where ARE the porters these days?  I’ve seen them at O’Hare, but nowhere else.  And seldom at O’Hare.  I always drag my own luggage.

It was worth it to go to all the bookstores.  Thank you online for recommending them!

CULTURAL OBSERVATIONS.  Londoners don’t smile.  Can that possibly be true?  People are expressionless or frowning.  The area where I’m staying is over-crowded on the weekend, and tourists don’t know where they are or where they’re going.  (Finally I know where I’m going.  Huh!)

On the tube we’re all too cross to smile.

We don’t smile while we’re looking at art.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t take notes on the art.

People who work in bookstores don’t smile much, but they are friendly and competent.

People who work in service do often smile, and the smiling helps the communication.  My impression is that many with service jobs are immigrants, or else English is not their first language.

Londoners who give directions often smile.

And then there are some other helpful Londoners who don’t smile.

So I decided to practice my London scowl.

The problem is that when I squint, my mouth curves up into a smile.  I’m not smiling, but you can’t possibly know that.

I am reminded of the characters in Trollope who don’t smile because they have bad teeth.

Or is that in Trollope?

I wonder if we smile more in the U.S.?

SUITCASES.  This is a tourist area, or rather an area of suitcases.  If you lose your way to the tube, just follow the suitcases.  The hotel lobby is always full of suitcases.  And at museums sometimes tourists come in and try to check their suitcases.

“We’re out of room.”

Much gesturing, until the tourists understand that they have to park their suitcases on the free shelves.  They’re not happy about it.

FOOD.  There is some excellent food.  I had some gnocchi that was so wonderful I ignored the fact that there was bacon in it.  (In the U.S. we can’t eat pork right now because a terrible virus has hit the pigs.)

I had a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger, which was recommended by someone online, and it was delicious.

Shopping at the supermarket proved the best and cheapest, though.

I love Rachel’s Yogurt!   And the canned soup is better than that in the U.S.

You can find some good sandwiches.

At home it’s always easier to eat healthy, but there are always salads.

ACCENTS.  “Great,” I said.  I kept saying it.  I never say “Great” at home.

Everything is “gray-y-y-te” here.

I’ve never heard an American accent like mine.

I stepped off the plane and started talking like this.

Let’s talk a little quicker and narrow the vowels.

But it’s easy to say “good” or “great” when you have no idea what someone’s saying.

I almost talked with a Texas accent today.

It’s a good thing I didn’t go to the Oxford Literary Festival, because that might have been too Brideshead Revisited for me, and I can’t imagine what it would have done to my accent.

Too bad I didn’t get to see Sebastian Barry or Magaret Drabble (but she was not talking about her own books).  There really isn’t any reason to see writers though.  It’s their books I love.

COULD I LIVE IN LONDON?  A beautiful city, I absolutely love it, but it makes me appreciate our quietness.  I’m longing for the country!

London with Coffee # 5 & Art

In Manhattan,  Diane Keaton says Van Gogh is overrated.

She pronounces it Van Gog.

Keaton is hilarious as an intellectual journalist.

At the National Gallery, I found myself skipping over the Van Gogh, though of course as a child I loved him and had a print of Van Gogh’s Chair.  I was more interested in other 19th-century painters like Monet, Manet, and Pissarro.

Such a good collection of Impressionists at the National Gallery.

I especially love Monet’s paintings of snow, because I am at home with snow.  It snows and snows and snows where I live.  Here is “Lavacourt under Snow.”

Monet's Lavacourt under Snow

Monet’s Lavacourt under Snow

And here is “Snow Scene at Argenteuil”:

Monet's Snow Scene at Argenteuill

Monet’s Snow Scene at Argenteuil

The colors are lovely and light after the dark paintings of the 16th , 17th, and 18th centuries.

STARRING VIVIEN LEIGH:  A CENTENARY CELEBRATION AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY.  The trip to London is my mother’s legacy, and Vivien Leigh was her favorite actress.

And so it is appropriate for me to see these photos of Leigh.  Gone with the Wind was my mother’s favorite book and movie.

Vivien Leigh in "That Hamilton Woman"

Vivien Leigh in “That Hamilton Woman”

Of course I know Leigh as Scarlett, but the photos of Leigh in other movies were even more intriguing:  as Cleopatra in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, as Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman, and as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Oh, Blanche!  What a brilliant movie that was!

So sad to be beautiful and mad.  Poor Vivien!  I remember reading long ago about her madness.  And did Laurence Olivier take care of her, or not?  There are always sad stories about mad women and their husbands.

My mother never went to a museum in her life.  Well, that’s probably an exaggeration, but close.  She had a bachelor’s degree, but she loved pop culture.  She could have been a pop culture critic.    Ladies’ Home Journal, movies (I saw every movie in the ’60s except Darling, which, inexplicably, I was not allowed to see), movie magazines, TV (we loved the fall edition of TV Guide), and musicals (we’d go to community productions).

The apple does fall far from the tree.  No human beings were ever more different than my mother and I.

I love museums, but even I admit you can have too much of a good thing.

There was so much to see at the National Portrait Gallery.  But this is all I have room to write about today.

COFFEE.  I had a cup at a bookstore:  excellent.

I went to Oxfam, a lovely bookstore, but the Virago Online Group who met in London last weekend seems to have wiped them out temporarily.  I had almost everything in the fiction and poetry sections, and I know that’s just not possible…:)  So maybe I’ll go again before I leave.  Oxfam is a favorite with everybody.

Foyles, however, is the best bookstore in the world.  (Well, I haven’t seen all of them.)

And I was out in the London rain today.  Very light, very easy.  I know you have floods here, but this was a spring rain.  And now I understand why English people go for walks in the rain.  At home it’s always a deluge.  So lovely and mild here (so far).

London with Coffee # 4 and Who Looks at Art?

Hahn/Cock, or, as I call it, the Blue Chicken

Hahn/Cock, by Katharina Fritsch

I love art.  I love museums.  And I very much enjoyed visiting the National Gallery.

I saw the blue chicken outside at Trafalgar Square.

The blue chicken is actually called Hahn/Cock, and is a sculpture of a cockerel by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.  It was installed in 2013.

I immediately felt at home with Hahn/Cock.  I’ve seen countless bright modern sculptures at various sculpture gardens, and I enjoy their humor and incongruousness.

What could be more traditional than Trafalgar Square? I love the lions.  I sat on a fountain for a while in a daze.  I shouldn’t have been tired, but I’m still on American time.

Inside the National Gallery, I didn’t take notes on the art for once.  It was so crowded that I didn’t feel up to whipping my notebook out.

My only note?  At first I thought the Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs was wearing glasses.

The painting is attributed to Anthony van Dyck, and was probably executed in Rubens’ studio.

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1620

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1620

Silenus is just so fat and drunk, and the light was such that my weak eyes saw little wire-rimmed glasses.  I do have new bifocals, and they help, but I need brighter light than this. My friend Ellen Moody, the blogger with whom I went to the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., can vouch that I have to look close up.

And this was when it struck me.  Fat women don’t look at art.   Only thin women look at art (with, ahem, one exception).  And yet there are many fat women painted in art.  Even Juno, Venus, and Minerva are overweight in Rubens’ Judgment of Paris, 1632-65. Are fat women self-conscious in museums?

Judgment of Paris, Rubens

Judgment of Paris, Rubens

So who looks at art?  So many different languages!

I got the impression that most of us were tourists from elsewhere.  Thin Europeans looked at art.  Many thin Asians seemed very knowledgable about art as they looked at art.

Do some of us feel more comfortable looking at art than others?

Fat or thin, I’ve looked at art.

I wish I’d picked up a brochure (didn’t see any!) or bought an art book, so I could talk knowledgably about what I saw, but you’ll have to take it from me that a pop culture writer like me adores The National Gallery.

You are probably wondering what I did about coffee today.

I had a cup at a patisserie.  It was good.  I was in a hurry, so I gulped it down.  I still haven’t made it to an indie coffeehouse.

And then I got lost on the way to Foyles.

I love Foyles.  What a wonderful bookstore!  It’s very big, and as good as the LRB Bookshop in a different way.  Yes, I am afraid I bought some books.  I was even tempted to buy some nice editions of books I already have.  Isn’t that crazy?

I almost bought Sebastian Barry’s The Last Gentleman, but I have a rule that I can’t buy hardbacks.  It will be out shortly in the U.S.

Am I going to the Oxford Literary Festival, where, by the way, Barry is reading tomorrow?  Oh, you guys, I’d love to go, but I’m just so tired.  I very much admire the transit system, however, and know I could get there if I tried.

It was snowing at home, last I heard, and it’s just so wonderful to spend my “spring break” here.  A very beautiful city.

Airport with Coffee # 1

Cathy, my favorite cartoon.  You can read these like a graphic novel.

Cathy, my favorite cartoon. (You can read these like a graphic novel.)

At five-thirty a.m., I was having a miraculous good-hair day at the airport.  I was absolutely convinced that everyone was admiring my drip-dry hair.  And then suddenly I had my personal security line.  There was only one of me, and there were at least eight security people to look at my stuff.  While my husband made faces at me on the other side of the glass (he thought it very funny that I couldn’t be rushed), I put the ziplocked bottle of mouthwash they are so fond of x-raying in one bin, shoes and coat in another bin, and almost had to part with my sweatshirt.

“What about that jacket?”

I gave them that inimitable schoolmarm look.

I got to keep the sweatshirt.

Let’s realize something. I’m a matron.  I’ve waited all my life to be a matron.

I didn’t hustle either.  It took me a while to regather my stuff.  “Do you need help, ma’am?”

“No, I’m just slow.”

I needed coffee very badly, and I have no memory at all of how those coffee-less hours passed. Later, at another airport, I passed a Starbucks.  But I was wandering around looking for my gate, and my so-called carry-on luggage was so heavy that my back ached, and how could I carry a coffee while dragging a barely-regulation-size suitcase and balancing an unbalanced laptop bag?

The only option was coffee at the McDonald’s by the gate. There was no sleeve!  It was too hot!  I couldn’t even sip it.   And if you, like me, thought an Egg McMuffin was an English muffin with an egg on it, you are wrong.  It also has a piece of ham and two yellow rectangles of cheese.  I threw it away.  It was utterly disgusting.

Now I’m sure you all know the answers to this airport dilemma.  BRING YOUR OWN GOOD FOOD.  There was no reason I couldn’t have made myself a little sandwich, if I’d thought of it.  Well, they would have x-rayed it, and that would have been no good.  But I certainly shouldn’t have been eating McDonald’s.

They did feed me later on the plane, unexciting but all vegetarian, and I did have coffee, but it’s not real coffee, if you know what I mean.

TOMORROW:  one good cup of coffee must be found.