Shopping with My Husband & Stella Gibbons’s “Bassett”

A photo from the ’60s.

Do you feel overwhelmed?  And stiff!

Here’s my latest exercise challenge:  shopping with my husband.

Although I bicycle, nothing prepared me for this shopping trip.  Usually I make the list and he shops (because I distract him with my extravagant love of name-brand canned tomatoes).  But now he has his arm in a sling, so I went with him.

He picked the fruit, I the vegetables.  He made me put them back because they were organic.  Too expensive.


This is why we seldom go grocery shopping together.

The most taxing part:  pushing the full shopping cart up the hill to the top of the parking lot.  He tried to pull it from the front, but I would not allow this.

P.S.  He is healing, and that’s what I care about!


Stella Gibbons, best-known for her satiric first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, the winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1933, wrote over 30 novels and collections of short stories.

And I have enjoyed her realistic novels thoroughly–even more than Cold Comfort Farm, if truth be told.  (See my posts on The Charmers and Westwood.)

Over the summer I read Bassett, a charming novel published in 1934.  Time flies–I meant to post on it earlier–but I’m just getting around to it (and am a little vague on it by now.)  In this delightful novel, Gibbons cleverly explores the worlds of two loosely-connected sets of characters: a couple of middle-aged women who go into business together, and a mismatched young couple down the road who fall in love–but will it last?

This witty novel begins with Gibbons’s description of the eccentric Miss Hilda Baker, a Londoner who works in a pattern-cutting office. “Museums and galleries, dens and historic haunts of peace lay all around Miss Baker, yet she lived as narrowly as a mouse in its hole; and went backwards and forwards between her lodgings and the offices in Reubens Place, for 21 years without  much change being made in her dark ordinary house.”

In the opening scene, Miss Baker is speculating on how she should invest her savings of 300 pounds.  She doesn’t want a car, or to travel. She doesn’t want to fritter away the money.  And so she is intrigued by an ad in Town and Country:  Miss Padsoe, a spinster in a country town, needs a partner in the conversion of her house into a rooming house.  Miss Baker checks it out:  she has a long, uncomfortable trip to the country and is not at all crazy about it. But when her boss sacks her (he is downsizing), she accepts Miss Padsoe’s offer.  And the adventures of Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe–which begin with Miss Padsoe being locked out by the bullying servants–are great fun to read.

Less amusing are the adventures of the aristocratic Shelling family down the road. Queenie Catton, a naive young woman with no job skills, takes a job as  Mrs. Shelling’s companion.  George, the sophisticated son of the house, falls in love with Queenie, though his sister Bell warns him Queenie is not their kind and that it would be wrong to seduce her.  If only Queenie had realized that he was a little too close to his sister Bell–but Queenie doesn’t understand their near-incestuous relationship.

I loved the parts about Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe. A lively novel–so much fun!  even though it is uneven.

Ka by John Crowley, Not Finding Quite What You Want on Black Friday, & Literary Links

The People had stories, but no history; everything that had happened was still happening.
Ka, by John Crowley

The hero of John Crowley’s brilliant new novel,  Ka, is a crow, Dar Oakley, who traverses both the realms of crows and human beings. Dar Oakley is an inquisitive crow, flying farther than most birds, and returning with arcane information about geography and anthropology.  His stories seem fantastic to the other crows, who laugh at him until they finally follow him on a journey.  Dar Oakley is the first crow to give himself a name, and starts the trend of individual naming.

John Crowley is a versatile writer who has won the World Fantasy Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in English.  I am a great fan of his Aegypt, a quartet of novels about philosophy, science, magic, and love. (For more information, follow this  link to Goodreads.)  I also enjoyed his historical novel, Lord Byron’s Novel, in which Bryon’s daughter Ada discovers an unpublished manuscript of a novel by Byron.  But Ka is very different, a kind of prose epic.

On one level,  Ka is an unputdownable story of a talking crow.  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of Dar Oakley.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  This man, who lives in a dystopian near-future, is dying of a new disease.  He has already lost his wife, and has little to live for.  One day he rescued Dar Oakley from the back yard where he found him ill, near death, he thought.

illustration by Melody Newcomb

Crows have a close relationship with humans, in that they follow them to find  food, the remains of animals they have hunted, their crops, or even human corpses.  But Dar Oakley is not just a scavenger. He learns human language. And he accompanies his human friends to the Underworld, or realm of death, where he steals immortality (which is a burden to him).

Because of the gift/curse of immortality, he lives for 2,000 years.  His companions include a shaman named Fox Cap; a monk; and a Native American storyteller.  Dar Oakley outlives them all; he also outlives his mates and his children.  And, in a brilliant reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Dar Oakley travels to the Underworld to attempt to rescue his beloved mate, Kits.  Like Orpheus, he fails.

Crowley’s language is beautiful; there are allusions to Dante, Virgil, and doubtless many other books I do not know.   I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  This is one of my favorite books of the year (and why didn’t it make any award shortlists?).  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.

There are also lovely illustrations by Melody Newcomb.

NOT FINDING WHAT YOU WANT ON BLACK FRIDAY.  It was a lovely day yesterday so I bicycled to Barnes and Noble.

What was on my list?  Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey.  In a way it’s a blessing they didn’t have it, because I have three other translations, and anyway I’m an Iliad person.  But I did find another book I wanted, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic.  When his 81-year-old father signs up for Mendelsohn’s class in the Odyssey at Bard College, their relationship undergoes some changes.


1.  I very much enjoyed the Books of the Year list at the Spectator. There are many lists, but  this is the only list from which I copied several titles.   I also listened to a podcast  called Can Anna Karenina Save Your Life?, in which Sam Leith interviews Viv Groskop about her new book, The Anna Karenina Fix:  Lessons from Russian Literature.  

2  I am a great fan of Mary Wesley, and was very excited to read a review in the TLS of Darling Pol:  The letters of Mary Wesley and Eric Siepmann, 1944–1967 The reviewer very much enjoyed it–and what a relief that was, since I had just been traumatized by a snotty review of one of my favorite books of the year, Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek!

The reviewer LINDSAY DUGUID writes,

Examining the lives of novelists, especially female novelists, has become an accepted way of approaching their work. The facts unfolded in biographies and the feelings expressed in letters can also be found in their fiction, where they appear again and again in different guises. The long and interesting life of Mary Wesley (1912–2002) can be seen as a rich source for the series of novels she wrote in old age, in which familiar themes recur.

I do hope this is published in the U.S. eventually.

President Obama Goes Shopping, Mad Shopping at Book Chains, & a Few Literary Links

PrPresident Barack Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha shopped at Upshur Street Books on Small Business Saturday.

President Obama and his daughters at Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C.

I love it when President Obama goes shopping on Small Business Saturday!  He always stops at a bookstore.   Today he and his daughters brought home the following from Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C.

“Purity: A Novel” by Jonathan Franzen
“Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: A Novel” by Salman Rushdie
“Elske: A Novel of the Kingdom” by Cynthia Voigt
“On Fortune’s Wheel” by Cynthia Voigt
“Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom” by Cynthia Voigt
“A Snicker of Magic” by Natalie Lloyd
“Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, Book 8” by Jeff Kinney
“Dork Diaries 1: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life” by Rachel Renée Russell

I don’t remember any other President going shopping for books every year.  He has his priorities straight.

David Mitchell slade_house2. MAD SHOPPING AT B&N.  The only independent bookstore in town is about the size of a handkerchief, so we checked out Barnes and Noble instead.

What did we like?  There is a new bookcase of signed copies of popular books. David Mitchell’s Slade House is a little gem, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a signed copy of this lovely yellow square hardcover with the cutout window?

The store was crowded, and we hope it’s doing well, because every town needs a bookstore.

3. THERE ARE GREAT DEALS AT AMAZON: 30% off any book through Dec. 1, with a maximum of $10 off.  It’s a good way to shop for those of us who live in the wilds!

Wise Blood flannery o'connor 41PFiW2R1VL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_4. I loved ISABELLA BIEDENHARN’S charming article,New Looks for Old Books:  Why Classics Are Getting Makeovers”(Entertainment Weekly).   She writes, “If familiar titles at the bookstore seem to be drawing the eye of your inner art lover more than usual lately, it’s not your imagination. Publishers are having a creative field day reissuing classic books with stunningly beautiful new covers—and lovely insides, too…”  One of the books pictured is this lovely new FSG edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.

5. ADULT COLORING BOOKS.  Francesca Wade at The Telegraph writes that this is the “hottest publishing trend.”   I haven’t had a coloring books since I was six and don’t feel the urge to color, but the books are lovely.

6. And, last but not least, “Christmas 2015: The 14 best translated fiction books,” at The Independent.

The Dream of Paper Products & Suitable Shopping Outfits

Two-pocket folders!

                                             Two-pocket folders!

I went to the mall to buy two-pocket folders.

It is actually the dying mall.  The Gap moved out and the tattoo parlors have moved in. Signs at the entry invite you to tweet a picture of yourself.   Heavens, who ya gonna tweet at the mall?  I have no electronics in my purse.

First I went to Target.  A few years ago I stood in line behind a woman who said she could live anywhere with a Target. That would be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.  I know what she means.  I love Target.

I carried a big plastic basket into the office supplies section.  Cute notebooks, but I have cute notebooks.  The two-pocket folders had cover art featuring Hello, Kitty! and superheroes.  Disappointing.

I moved on to the office supply store.  I naively believed the Notebook section would have notebooks.  No, it was electronic tablets!   In the ’90s I wrote an article for a business magazine posing the question,  “Is the dream of the paperless office dead?”    It was then, but I fear it is alive again.

Finally I found suitable paper products. How can you go wrong with folders with floral designs and polka dots?

More folders IMG_3292I also bought pens, because I like to have the option of writing in purple or pink ink.

And then there are the post-it page markers.  I wanted the kind shaped like arrows.  They have no such thing. Has anyone used these post-it markers in books?  Do they ruin the paper?   There is a warning:  Test before using.  Not for my first editions of Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Barbara Pym!

One dreadful thing happened at the mall. I was wearing a bicycling outfit instead of a bicycling/shopping outfit, and when I passed a mirror I was appalled to see the threads hanging from my 15-year-old t-shirt. I rushed to a clothing store.   I went through the sales racks and found a suitable top.  “I’m going to wear this,” I told the cashier, who blipped her scanner at the tag.

The dream of a suitable shopping outfit isn’t dead!

E-readers, Never Shop with a Man, & NANOWRIMO

The-eBook-e-Reader-Painting--95667Sometimes my e-reader is my friend, sometimes it isn’t.

Last week I had a solitary weekend.

Everyone I knew was out of town.

My husband was on a business trip and gave me several phone numbers I would never call.

Doesn’t everyone love a solitary weekend?

It was pretty much my e-reader and I.  We are  great friends since I deleted my email account and Twitter from the machine.  No more email alerts:  no more reading 10 pages, then checking 10 emails.  I feel about my e-reader the way the women in Sex and the City feel about their vibrators.

And so I spent the weekend reading Meg Wolitzer’s brilliant new novel, The Interestings, a long realistic masterpiece that pleased critics who underestimated her last book, The Uncoupling, a short, clever riff on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

As I said at my old blog, Wolitzer has a brilliant, distinctly American voice, slightly Nora Ephronish, with a twist of Dorothy Parker.

In The Interestings, she writes about a group of New Yorkers who meet in the ’70s at an arts camp.  Their friendship extends into middle age in the 21st century.

Read, read, read.  And then…

Oh, no.  A car in the driveway!

I hoped the person with hennaed hair and black clothes in the driveway was not the old friend with hennaed hair and black clothes I had last seen in a mental hospital after her bad trip at Woodstock II.  Normally I am happy to see anybody, but this was my weekend!

The person went away.  Wrong address apparently.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings seemed to apply to the situation, though, as so often happens when you’re reading and living life.  She writes about mental health politics as well as other changes of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The pills do not necessarily work well.

The main character, Jules, a (female) social worker, is married to Dennis, who has depression.

Ever since he’d been taken off the MAOI five years earlier, Dennis had rarely returned to buoyancy.  Instead, he still struggled with what his pharmacologist variously referred to as “low-level depression,” “atypical depression,” and “dysthymia.” There were some people who were just very hard to treat, Dr. Brazil said.  They were able to live their lives, sometimes to a fairly full extent, but they never felt good.  Dennis’s atypical depression wasn’t making him break down, as it had in college, but it also wouldn’t go away.  He felt its presence like a speck in the eye or like a chronic, rattling cough.  Different drugs were tried, but nothing worked for very long, or if a drug did work, the side effects made it untenable.

By the way, I am so glad Obama’s health care plan will treat mental illness like a physical illness, with the same deductibles, etc.  Don’t let the insurance companies and the Republicans destroy our new national health care.

Hey!  Why didn't we look like that?

Hey! Why didn’t we look like that?

NEVER SHOP WITH A MAN.   I  went to the mall with a man.  What was I thinking?

I had to buy a few things that were too big to fit in the bike pannier.

He moodily paced behind me.  No smile, and he wondered why no clerk would help us.

Finally I caught the attention of  a clerk who showed me several bags I could use for a laptop that weren’t strictly laptop bags.

Later, the man was so tired and mall-phobic that he argued over whether we could spend 99 cents at Target.

The other men at the mall were behaving well, but their wives were clearly in charge.

I bought the 99-cent item.

You know the reggae:  Get up, stand up.

But it’s really easier to shop with your cousin.

THE SHORTEST NANOWRIMO EVER.   Every November people all over the world sign up for NANOWRIMO (National  Novel Writing Month) to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I’m not a fiction writer.

Nor do I want to write fiction.

Nor do I want to write 1,660 words a day.

But I love the idea of writing a novel in 30 days, so I planned to write a new version of Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo.

Then I realized I’d rather read Ovid.

I wrote 32 words.

I lasted one minute this year!   I will not even PRETEND to write a novel.

That’s it!  I  promise never to sign up for NANOWRIMO again.

Vampirically Preppy with Too Much Lipstick

Detail, "House of Fire II," by James Rosenquist

Detail, “House of Fire II,” by James Rosenquist

My mother briefly worked as a cashier.

One day I walked into the drugstore and there she was.

I ducked out.  Horrible of me, I know, but I was stunned to see her working a minimum-wage job.  I lived with my father, who had custody of me, and I had not realized she would need to work after their divorce.

She was no longer young, and despite her college degree, there was no suitable work.  Later she got an office job.  Still underemployed, but at least not humiliated.

And now we, too, are middle-aged, well-educated, and unsuitably, under-, or un- employed.

Retail could be our future.

I thought about this idly on Saturday when I was shopping for clothes.  Department stores employ quite a few middle-aged and older people.  Maybe I could hang up garments.  I once had a job where I sat outside the dressing rooms and gave out plastic hangers telling the number of garments people were trying on.

I don’t see anyone doing that job now.

On Saturday one helpful clerk, possibly in her sixties, was so charming and funny that one did not notice her age.

Another was ancient. She would not smile.  That is what made her seem old.  This unmannerly woman, with long, carefully-combed gray hair, was wrinkled and miserable. Perhaps in her seventies?   What was wrong?  I wondered.  She looked ill.  Was she ill?   I adjusted my face from smiling to sympathetic.  Still no reaction.   She wanted me to open a charge card.  I made a joke about cards.  No smile. She repeated the charge card offer.  No smile.

I gave up.  She hated me because I was shopping, not working.

If my mother had been there, she would have assured me that I was the best, most delightful, kind, polite woman in the world–yes, in the world?  Got that!– and that the cashier was mad or undeserving of sympathy.

We would have gone out for coffee or Diet Cokes.

As it is, I felt slightly worried about the rude woman.  What was wrong with her?

I missed my mother again today.

I was shopping at a box store. She loved box stores; I do not.  I was dressed in a “vampirically preppy” outfit (black sweater, blue turtleneck, and black jeans) of which she would have approved except for the black, which means she wouldn’t have approved.

And later I wore too much lipstick.

When I say too much lipstick, I mean too much lipstick.

It was new lipstick.  Two for one and a half.

I’ve never had red lipstick before.  Let’s face it, I’ve only owned three lipsticks in my life.  Would the red distract from the weathered look…?

That was my thought.

I smeared it on.

In the mirror it looked…red!

Hours later my lips were terribly red, and, worse, there was a puffiness.

Puffy lips!  No, I don’t want the puffy lips look!

It was a slight allergic reaction to the lipstick.

Again, my mother and I would have laughed about it, unsurprised, because I am allergic to most makeup.

I do miss her.  “Throw it away.”  That’s her voice in my head.

I threw the lipstick away.

Back to the crayon thing that barely colors lips (I’ve had it for years) and is perhaps just a fancy chapstick!