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Archive for August, 2012

The trees and grass were still green as summer, but the air and sky had thinned indefinably, as they did in autumn, and the first few leaves, dropped from what trees you could never tell, were drifting downwards in the sunlit air.

–Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

I studied classics at a large university, spent hours giggling and making flashcards at the Student Union,  and pored over Liddell and Scott at home when I wasn’t reading Margaret Drabble or E. F. Benson’s Lucia books.

In other words, my college days were not much like those described in Tam Lin.

And perhaps that’s why I like the book so much.

Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, set at a small college in Minnesota in the ’70s, is a whimsical chronicle of an undergraduate education.  Part college novel, part offbeat fantasy, it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with  Donna Tartt’s The Secret History–with a dash of the ballad Tam Lin.

The heroine, Janet Carter, an English major at Blackstock College, arrays her children’s books and science fiction on the shelves in her dorm and makes friends on the basis of shared reading.  One of her roommates, Molly, a Shakespeare-loving biology major, is a soulmate, but the other, Tina, a conservative pink-jacket-wearing pre-med major, annoys her by asking why she’s an English major.

Look,” said Janet, irritated, “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay your room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

The three women befriend a group of male classics majors who not only translate Homeric graffiti without need of a dictionary, but mount an outrageous production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady Is for Burning that insults the head of the classics department.  There’s never a dull moment.  Janet can’t help thinking they seem more like theater majors than classics majors.

Although Janet takes Greek, she refuses to change her major to classics, and must struggle every term over this issue with her classics professor advisor.  Much of the tension among her male friends emanates from echoes of mysterious clashes between students and the control freak department head, Medeous, a mad redhead who is rumored to seduce men and women, and who insists that the whole department go horseback riding on Halloween  (they look more like elves than classicists.)

The Blackstock folklore also centers on the classics department: all classics majors are said to be crazy (well, they are, we know!), and the Fourth Erickson Ghost, tVictoria Thompson, a classics major who committed suicide in the late 19th century after learning she was pregnant, throws books out the window of a dormitory: her favorites are the Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary, Chase and Phillips (a Greek primer), and The Scarlet Letter.

Janet, the daughter of a romantic poetry professor and a townie, was prepared for eccentricities.  She did not, however, expect an actual ghost.

What the hell is going on at Blackstock?

Odd though it may seem, I find Janet’s poetic descriptions of the midwestern weather and landscape soothing and remedial in the dark days of fall.  She describes the  “luminous grayish-yellow” skies after rain; “a small meadow of goldenrod on a dusty path”  in fall; and a snowy day in March when “the sky had already lost the profound and chilly color it got in winter.”

This is one of my favorite books.  It’s about what Janet reads, and how others respond to what Janet reads.  It’s probably  not for everybody.

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Faith Sullivan

Many of you already know Faith Sullivan.

Her novel The Cape Ann was very popular when it was published in 1989.  I’m afraid I didn’t read it, but it is on my radar now because it has been reissued as a Nook book.  The Empress of One, a sequel, won the Milkweed National Fiction Award in 1996.

After devouring Faith Sullivan’s out-of-print 1985 novel, Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast, which I discovered at the library, I am eager to track down her other books.  Mrs. Demming should be a cult classic if it’s not.

In this beautifully-written, partly realistic, partly fantastic novel, Sullivan tells the story of Larissa Demming, an artist in her late 40s whose marriage is pretty much kaput.  Although friends think her husband, Bart, a professor, is adorable, he’s actually stiff and dull, shut up all summer in his study writing, unsupportive of Larissa’s art.

During a summer in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, the beautiful river town where they have a summer house, Larissa sketches, paints, joins an ecology campaign, and opposes her investment banker daughter’s wedding.

Much of the novel centers on the ecology campaign.  When a corporation from Texas wants to raze the land and build condos on the riverbank, the town is divided:  businessmen want it; the environmentally-minded do not.   Among Larissa’s anti-development friends are Harry, a newspaper publisher who calls for a study of the impact on the environment, and Daisy, her best friend, a former art gallery owner who is the mother of a free spirit whom Larissa wishes her son had married.  On the other side are Harry’s wife, Roberta, who tries to drive him out of business because of his anti-development articles, and Larissa’s husband Bart, who doesn’t take sides but doesn’t want to be involved and doesn’t want Larissa to be involved because of gossip about her and Harry.  (Harry is in love with Larissa.)

The oddest facet of this save-the-river novel is Larissa’s meeting on a picnic in the woods with Pan, the satyr god.  Whether the satyr is real or imaginary, he takes us deeper into her psyche, and helps her understand her difficult past, which is dominated by Jamie, an itinerant father who deserted her after years of closeness as soon as she went to college, and her own dull children who rebelled against her by choosing numbers-crunching professions and early marriage.

How does Pan fit in? He is a lover of women, and he becomes Larissa’s lover.  He tells an amazing love story about how a young, spirited woman he loved smuggled him out of Greece to Minnesota in the 19th century, and then died young.  The story inspires Larissa to research the history of the young woman’s family.  She also researches the history of Belle Riviere, and paints scenes for a Historical Society exhibition.  Then she illustrates a book Harry’s son, Bobby,  is writing.  And since Larissa plans to go to Greece by herself…

One of the things I like best about Sullivan’s novel is her creation of Minnesota as a  world unto itself.  It is not fey  like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, though of course he’s very funny.  Sullivan’s Minnesota is a place where sophisticated, well-educated people live in small pretty towns or the Twin Cities (Larissa’s base), are intense about nature, and, lo and behold! don’t long for New York. Her vivid descriptions of a state characterized by lakes, rivers, and a city with magnificent museums, parks, and shopping will make you see it.  (And I have, and am delighted to revisit it.)

Here is Sullivan on the weather and the landscape.

It was June, mid-June, and after months of numbing winter, the landscape was still tender and emerging.  In Minnesota there’s a tentativeness about early summer, as though a harsh word or sudden movement might cause it to change its mind and disappear.

Despite the clear, strong sunlight, a frill of coolness edged the day.  When I beached on the opposite shore, I unloaded my basket on the sand where the sun shone unobstructed, rather than back under the trees on the mossy bank.  I came to this side of the river to picnic because the trees didn’t grow as close to the water as they did in front of our cabin.  Also, this side, the eastern bank, was protected by law from development, so there were no cabins and one could hope to picnic or read without distraction.

The short scenes in Greece later in the novel are a little weak, but overall this is an excellent novel, and Larissa is a charming narrator.  It is really one of the most charming books I’ve read this year.  I’m adding it to my “If I Were Oprah (and Thank God I’m Not” Book Club list.

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We were down to old lettuce and cereal.

“Where are the raisins?”

It’s the usual harum-scarum problem that besets bad housewives.  We’ve been busy reading and blogging, reading and cleaning, and maybe reading while we walk and drink tea or coffee.

We really need one of those magnetic shopping list pads.

Usually I make a list on a piece of  paper torn out of my diary. “Please will somebody go to the store?”   I’m a non-driver, and sometimes stuff explodes inside my bike panniers, so if we need a LOT of big stuff, like laundry detergent and that super-size of cereal, I send someone else.  Someone who DRIVES.

When I show up at the urban grocery store to pick up a few things, the cashier sees my bike helmet and says, “Who knows if that ice cream will still be ice cream when you get it home?” He has no idea how fast I can ride when there’s ice cream.

Usually we shop urban, but we had some stuff to do in the suburbs, and decided to investigate the new trendy high-concept Hy-Vee in Urbandale.

Hy-Vee produce section.

Oh my God, it was overwhelming.  They give you a map.  The Asian cooks are stir-frying in front and giving out free samples.  There are incredibly green greens and beautiful fruit, including some I’ve never tried:  Plumcots (hybrids of plums and apricots), starfruit, and little melons.  Sorry, I didn’t take notes, and don’t know what the melons were.

Then there is the gelato bar, the Starbucks with a fireplace, the sushi bar, the Chinese food, the pizza cooked in a stone oven, a huge bakery, a sit-down restaurant, a butcher’s shop, a seafood shop, bulk foods, pet aisles, etc.

My husband wanted to find the oatmeal bar.  We couldn’t find it.

We decided we couldn’t possibly shop there without a list.  So we just bought birthday cupcakes.

Hy-Vee bakery.

I don’t actually see the cupcakes we bought (I downloaded the photo from the internet).  They were little chocolate and white cupcakes.  I didn’t feel up to one of those giant cupcakes.

Mmmmm.  The cupcakes were delicious.

Many have compared this new Hy-Vee to Trader Joe’s.  I’d love to shop at Trader Joe’s, but it is at the edge of the suburbs, and it would be difficult to get there on my bicycle.  It could be done, but it would be an unpleasant ride.

Although this new Hy-Vee is a lot of fun, we’ll stick to our regular Hy-Vee (which is also big).

I do love the Hy-Vee.  Founded in Iowa in 1930, it is now a big chain.  I grew up shopping in the little Hy-Vee store on Kirkwood Ave. in Iowa City with my mom.  We would buy groceries (“Could we have space food sticks?  Please.”) get dishes with Green Stamps (or they may have been brown:  I’m not sure), and pick up comic books and 59-cent editions of Little Women and the Trixie Belden books.

The Kirkwood Ave. store was closed long ago.

The Urbandale Hy-Vee is too far away (would eat gas), and is really too big to be efficient for us.  Unless we want a treat, we probably won’t shop there.

We housewives have to think of these things, especially when we’re sending others to the store.

And now here’s a recipe for white cupcakes.  I haven’t tested it because I’m a bad housewife.  Yup, I don’t need to bake them when I can buy them, but check out allrecipes.com

So where do you like to shop?  Big stores, small stores, organic stores…?  Let me know!

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All of the gifts that they gave
Can’t compare in any way
To the love I am now
Giving to you
Right here”-Morrisey’s “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”

My birthday gift was bought at the Hy-Vee!

Like Morrissey, I am a Baby Boomer, though would he call himself that?  Yes, “all of the [birthday] gifts that they gave/Can’t compare…,”  but I’m a birthday bibliophilic materialist, and when my husband told me he bought my gift at the Hy-Vee, I knew he needed help.

If he rides his bike ten miles to the edge of the strip mall zone, he’ll find himself at a bookstore.

And if  anyone else would like to buy one of the books on my Top 10 Books I Want to Read This Fall list, we can share–and, oops, I just sent them the link!

Here is The List.

1.  Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints.  The comedienne Phyllis Diller just died. She made me laugh in the ’60s:  she  mocked being a  housewife, constantly smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder, wore feather boas and zany hairstyles, and referred to her husband as Fang.  I can’t afford this 1966 paperback: $20 to $69 at Amazon.

2.  John Fowles’ The Magus.  I loved  The French Lieutenant’s Woman and enjoyed the movie with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.  And I keep coming across “summer reading” recommendations of The Magus, and there’s also a movie with Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, and Candice Bergen.   According to the overview at B&N,   “The Magus is the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who accepts a teaching assignment on a remote Greek island. There his friendship with a local millionaire evolves into a deadly game, one in which reality and fantasy are deliberately manipulated, and Nicholas must fight for his sanity and survival.”

3.  Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  I love science fiction, and this is said to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where the hero lives at an airport, flies a 1956  Cessna, and has a dog.

4.  Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, a collection of his witty book columns from The Believer.

5.  Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language.  108 British and American poets from Chaucer through Frost.  I love anthologies!

6.  Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils.  NYRB is reissuing this 1986 Booker Prize winner.  I love Amis’s books, especially Lucky Jim and  Take a Girl Like You.

7.  Louis MacNeice’s Roundabout Way.  According to Capuchin Classics, “This picaresque, comic novel wittily satirises the social mores and youthful idealism that prevailed in London and the Home Counties between the wars, and will be a treat for the considerable number of MacNeice devotees across the Anglophone world.”

8.  Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. The Wall Street Journal recently recommended this in an article about books about sin.  According to Paula Fredrickson, “This panoramic novel, with its finely drawn ensemble of characters, arcs across cultures and continents as Wouk explores the global paroxysm that was World War II.”

9.  Lisa Alther’s Washed in the Blood.  I loved Alther’s ’70s masterpiece Kinflicks, and other comical novels, but haven’t come across her recent historical novel.  Amazon says, “This unique three-part novel assumes that, regardless of what Americans learn in school, the Southeast was not a barren wilderness when the English arrived at Jamestown. It was full of Native Americans , other Europeans, and Africans who were there for various reasons.”

10.  Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, was recently nominated for an award, though I can’t remember what award.  A couple creates a child out of snow in Alaska:  supposed to be beautifully written, etc., etc.

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Lately I’ve binged on “pop” literary novels, which I define as well-written fiction with a tad more plot than is acceptable in “literary fiction.”  On my nightstand are Jo-Ann Mapson’s Solomon’s Oak (which I’ve just finished), Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree (I’ve read 100 pages), and Vernon Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime (55 pages).

Don’t I have a birthday coming up?

I like to mix up  genres:  literary fiction, pop women’s fiction (Mapson and Newmark) and LOTS of SF(Vinge).  I always laugh delightedly when Nick Hornby, book columnist for The Believer and author of the hilarious collections, The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, makes fun of literary fiction.  He says The Believer has a policy of not lambasting books, so he had to change his way of reading.

” As a consequence, the first thing to be cut from my reading diet was contemporary literary fiction. This seems to me to be the highest-risk category – or the highest risk for me, at any rate, given my tastes.”

Despite denials, it’s obvious that Hornby writes literary fiction, and reviews quite a bit of it, too.  But I like his exhortation that reading shouldn’t be punitive and, if you don’t like a book, put it down.

Which, believe me, I do.

I read the pop books on my nightstand.

Jo-Ann Mapson’s moving novels are plot-driven and fast-paced, but it’s the honesty of her strong, unpretentious, quirky heroines that keeps me reading.  They often live on farms, love horses, and struggle to make ends meet.

In her latest novel,  Solomon’s Oak, the three main characters must deal with formidable amounts of  grief.  Glory, a 38-year-old widow, struggles to support the farm after her beloved husband’s death; Joseph Vigil, an ex-cop, was wounded in a drug bust and is looking for peace in photography; and Juniper, a 14-year-old girl, lost her sister, who was abducted, and then her parents: one abandons her, the other commits suicide.

Glory is the most complex character, and most of the chapters are narrated in the third person from her point of view.  Her passionate determination to keep her rescue dogs and horses off Death Row at the pound keeps her working when she’s very tired: she has a lot of mouths to feed.   Her descriptions of the dogs are vivid:  I’ll never forget Caddy, the friendly border collie who loves to herd goats, who ran back to the farm twice after being adopted out, and who tried to save a life.

Mapson sees work as one of the defining characteristics of Glory’s karma, and I’m fascinated because  work in novels in usually underdescribed.  As the novel opens on Thanksgiving, Glory is inaugurating a new wedding planning business: she provides a wedding venue in the chapel on her land and does all the catering.  Glory is preparing a pirate-themed wedding, for which she has roasted three turkeys, mashed buckets of potatoes, and brewed gallons of pirate drinks, mead and lemon bubble.

Before the wedding starts, her friend Caroline, a social worker, calls like a bad fairy to ask her to house a traumatized teenage girl for one day before she is put into foster care.  Glory reluctantly agrees, because she and Dan raised a couple of foster sons, and she puts a competent but complaining Juniper to work at the wedding.  After learning her story, and that Caddy had been Juniper’s sister’s dog before the abduction, Glory knows she must let the girl stay.  And so she has a foster child again.

Joseph Vigil also shows up at the wedding.  While photographing a huge oak tree on Glory’s land, he mistakes  the choreographed pirate fight in front of the chapel for a real fight and pulls a gun.  Not the best way to meet a woman.

Does it sound too easy a read?  It’s not.  Mapson is an experienced writer who seamlessly weaves many fascinating details about the characters’ history with the plot:  Glory’s work, Joseph’s photography and past work in a police lab, and their mutual concern for Juniper, who keeps getting suspended from school for fighting.

Again, Mapson is great on work.  Here is Glory getting ready for another wedding, and anyone who’s ever struggled to make a living will understand this weariness:

Here I am watching the casserole through the oven door to make sure it doesn’t burn like Dan’s yams because it means the difference between paying the feed bill or calling Target to beg for more hours….  The casserole’s sharing the 1960s-era oven with the roasts did unpredictable things to the temperatures and the food.  She didn’t dare leave the room.  As she sat on the floor and peeked through the glass door, she prayed the only kind of prayers she ever prayed.  Please come out perfect.   Red polo shirts do nothing for me.  I’m not old enough to wear khaki pants five times a week.”

I couldn’t put this novel down and even cried over it.  My only criticism:  the plot device of the abduction of Juniper’s sister seemed a dramatic TV-movie “issue” added to make the book sell.  Despite Mapson’s intelligent research, and her hint of Juniper’s confused, repressed knowledge that the older high school boys her sister secretly dated may have abducted and murdered her,  I didn’t feel the scenario quite fit in with the rest of the book.

But Mapson is a very good writer of women’s novels and this won The American Library Association’s 2011 RUSA Award.

Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree Someone sent me an ARC of this over a year ago–a very good reason not to send me ARCs since I don’t get around to them for years if at all.  (The publicity materials are long gone.) Set in the Himalayas in India, this entertaining novel tells two stories of women who lived in the same bungalow at different times.  In 1947, Evie goes with her husband, Martin, a historian, who has won a Fulbright to o study the end of British rule in a town in the Himalayas .  Martin, who has PTSD and nightmares from his experiences in World War II, is obsessed with cleanliness, difficult to live with, perhaps less at ease in India than Evie and their young son. When Evie discovers a packet of letters of two young women who lived in the same house in 1857, she begins to do research, and we learn their story through letters and journals.  She persuades Martin to stay when Partition begins earlier than he expected.

I certainly seem to come across a lot of novels that are set in two times like this.  Earlier this summer I read Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, and that interweaves a narrative set in London in the present with a journal in 1923 in Turkestan.  Then I’m thinking of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, another split narrative:  the story of a young woman visiting India in the present is alternated with her grandmother’s story.

Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime.  I’ve been hearing  for years that I should read SF writer Vernor Vinge.  Fifty-five pages into Marooned in Realtime, I’m finding it predictable after the work of Clifford D. Simak and Pamela Sargent, whom I read earlier this year.  The premise?  Three hundred human beings are left on Earth, and they’ve been rescued from various Ages by a couple of very brilliant scientists and engineers who “bobbled” forward in time to a future where human beings will thrive, only somebody is murdered…and Will Brierson is the only cop on earth.

Okay, this is okay, but I’m not thrilled with it.   Maybe I should have started with another book.

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Do you dust or vacuum?  I don’t care what gender you are.  That makes you a housewife.

This blog is for you.

In a recent digression from my usual book blogging, “Bad Housewife: Episode 1,”  I mused about dusting louvered doors (doors with slats).  After reading 14 pages in a book about housework and learning that I was polluting the air with allergens by not dusting every day, I finally gleaned that a small paint brush (as in a watercolors box) might reach the dust in the slats.  Somehow I’ve never been near an art store or a hardware store since then.  Hardware store?  Six blocks away.  Why didn’t I get on my bike…?  I just can’t tell you.

Instead, I did some interior decorating to distract myself.

This summer we pulled up a carpet that was, according to a carpet expert, the original carpet of the house from the 1930s.  Somebody in the 1930s wanted a really ugly carpet to cover the wooden floors.

Maybe it could look like this!  But this isn’t our house.

I had dreams of refinishing the floors.

And when we pulled up the carpet, there it was.  A wooden floor.

Excitedly I called a flooring store, only to learn that it would take six days of applying sheets of toxic chemicals to refinish the floor, and that we would have to go to a hotel because we wouldn’t be able to leap giant steps across the room to get to our bathroom.

Oh, dear, this didn’t exactly sound like us.  Moving the bookcases had taken it out of us, and we didn’t feel like staying at the local Holiday Inn.  So I threw some throw rugs down.  Only the wooden floor was in pretty bad shape.

So then we decided on a carpet.

So many choices. We browsed at a big DIY store, and discovered we could get (a) nylon carpet; (b) a carpet made from recycled bottles; (c) a carpet made from corn.

Don’t fool yourselves.  All those substances pollute.  To make the fabric from plastic bottles or corn, those factories are emitting chemicals.

But we went with the carpet made from recycled bottles.   I consulted an environmentalist, and that was his random answer.  He said the recycled bottles and corn emitted fewer chemicals than the nylon.

And do you know how much difference a new carpet makes?  I LOVE MY CARPET.  It’s all about the carpet now.  Everybody comes into the house and says, “This house looks so nice.”

Yeah, nobody looks at the louvered doors.

We even got a good pad, so it’s so comfortable to walk on.

It reminds me of my mother’s house.  Yes, I can walk in now and am in a lovely space.

I even got the color I wanted.  Not the neutral we usually go with.  But I won’t tell you the color.  I’ll just let you imagine whatever color you really like.

Pick a color!

Now the question is:  how do I keep it really clean?  I’m obsessed with vacuuming.  I am vacuuming every day.  I’m not going into corners, but I am vacuuming the main space.  Will this keep it clean? And does anybody know of a really good type of vacuum cleaner?  Because I think I need one.

Tell me how to keep my carpet clean.  Oh, I know you’re readers, not housewives.  If I weren’t a reader, maybe I’d know how to clean.

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I used to read a lot of quirky out-of-print books which I unearthed at Project Gutenberg and in used bookstores.  Go to my original Frisbee blog at Blogger (before I moved to WordPress) , click on 2009, and you’ll read about Pamela Hansford Johnson, Pamela Frankau, Hugh Walpole,  Eleanor Hodgman Porter, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I decided it was time to get back to some of these writers.

So I read an absolutely charming novel by Eleanor Hodgman Porter, Oh, Money!  Money!  (free at Project Gutenberg).

Eleanor Hodgman Porter is best known for her children’s books, and you may know Pollyanna (or the Disney movie).  But she also wrote some slight but very entertaining adult books:  I very much enjoyed Sister Sue (which I wrote about here) and the Miss Billy trilogy (here).

Porter is in good form in Oh, Money! Money!  It is an absorbing, fun read, and reasonably well-written.  I  read this in my back yard when I was ousted from my house by carpenters and handymen.  Anything you can read in a lawn chair has to be good.

The unlikely premise–and who wants likely?–is as follows:  Stanley G. Fulton, a 50-year-old multi-millionaire, goes “undercover” to decide who should be his heir.  Three distant cousins, the Blaisdells, live “back east” in the town of Hillerton, and he arranges for his lawyer to give $100,000 to each.  Suddenly it is printed in the newspapers that Stanley has disappeared in South America, and the lawyer gives the Blaisdells their $300,000, explaining that in two years an envelope will be opened revealing the heir of the millions.  And  Stanley has really “disappeared” from Chicago:   He goes to Hillerton under the name of Mr. John Smith, as a genealogist writing a family history of the Blaisdells.

Hillerton is a charming small town, which you will recognize from your travels.  Porter writes:

The common marked the center of Hillerton. Its spacious green lawns and elm-shaded walks were the pride of the town.  There was a trellised bandstand for summer concerts, and a tiny pond that accommodated a few boats in summer and a limited number of skaters in winter.  Perhaps, most important, the common divided the plebeian East Side from the more pretentious West.  James Blaisdell lived on the West Side.  His wife said that everybody did who WAS anybody.  They had lately moved there, and were, indeed, barely settled.”

I even know all about the West Side and the East Side.  It’s that way in every town.

The three Blaisdell cousins are very different, as you can imagine.  Will money have a sanguine effect on them?

Jim Blaisdell is a bibliophile and harried realtor who lives beyond his means on the West Side.  He can’t make enough money to please his ambitious, silly wife, Hattie, but he is proud of his children, Fred, a hard-working boy who wants to be a lawyer, beautiful 16-year old Bessie, and energetic eight-year-old Benny.

Cousin Flora is a sweet, generous, rather scatterbrained seamstress.   She is poor, and doesn’t feel comfortable visiting on the West Side.

The third Blaisdell cousin, Frank, is a successful grocer married to miserly Jane, who feeds them the cheapest food, covers rugs with other rugs, “to save them,” and won’t allow their exuberant teenage daughter to wear new clothes.

Mr. Smith experiences culture shock when he boards with Frank’s family, though he likes them.    But when the cousins learn they have inherited money, Jane kicks him out, saying Hattie told her the rich shouldn’t have boarders. Mr. Smith must now board with “Poor Maggie.”

By far the most important character is “Poor Maggie.”  Maggie is a brilliant, middle-aged, Cinderellaish poor relation who was never able to finish college because she had to come home and take care of her difficult “Father Duff.”  Every time she leaves Hillerton, there is a crisis and she must return.  Maggie is tactful, charming, and creative, and  solves most of the family problems.

Does money help the Blaisdells?   Their difficulties multiply.   Mr. Smith is shocked.  He had no idea what money could do.

This  comedy says a lot about money’s advantages and disadvantages.  There are some good and terrible moments.

And, for those who want to know about Porter, here is a brief bio from my own blog entry about Sister Sue in 2009:

“Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868-1920) was a pop turn-of-the-century girls’ writer whose briskly-plotted novels explored the conflict between duty and self-expression in girls’ and women’s lives. Her novels are comparable to those of L. M. Montgomery and Gene Stratton Porter, and her plots race along, though her uneven style ranges from serviceable and lively to wooden and didactic. Yet there is a sparkle to Eleanor Porter’s stories, even when the characters lapse into the kind of pre-feminist wearying duty and drudgery that can ruin lives. Porter’s moralistic themes seem pertinent today: how many women in this depressed economy must, like the heroine of Sister Sue, postpone pursuing their dreams to make a bare living or care for more than one generation of their families?”

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Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, a novel about idealism and disillusion in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, is an extraordinary novel.

Before losing myself for five days of engrossed rereading of The Sweetest Dream, I vehemently maintained that the Children of Violence series was her masterpiece, and the best place for neophytes to begin.  Indeed, that five-book series, which comprises Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City, is s 20th-century classic. (You can read my long piece on it).

But autres temps, autres moeursThe Sweetest Dream, published in 2001,  is more traditional than her postmodern novels of the ’60s, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City.  If  her experimental novels seem dated to some 21st century readers, The Sweetest Dream is an abbreviated, straightforward retelling of The Four-Gated City.

Like The Four-Gated City, which is the last of the Children of Violence series, The Sweetest Dream is a political novel that delineates the lives and fortunes of a flamboyant extended family in London over three decades (sans the science fiction elements of TFGC).

The first part is set in London.  The heroine, Frances Lennox, a writer and a single mother, is a more tepid version of Martha Quest.  She longs to be an actor, but  must work as a freelance journalist for a greater salary.  Her feckless ex-husband Johnny, whom she despises, has kept her sons insecure because he contributes nothing to the family. Johnny, a star of the communist party on false pretenses–he pretends he was in the Spanish Civil War, but was not–devotes his talents to schmoozing with other communists in hotel rooms, on the Party’s expense account.

As the novel opens, Frances has received two letters with job offers:  one to be an actor in a prestigious play in a small theater, the other as an agony aunt for a newspaper (and this will remind some of you of the magazine job of Anna’s alter-ego, Ella, in The Golden Notebook ).

Lessing writes of Frances:

She had been writing on all kinds of subjects for years.  At first she had tried her wings in local papers and broadsheets, any place that would pay her a little money.  Then she found she was doing research for serious articles, and they were in the national newspapers.  She had a name for solid balanced articles that often shone an unexpected and original light on a current scene.

Lessing with John Osborne in 1961. Behind them are Sheila Delaney and Vanessa Redgrave. Photo: Reg Warhurst/Associated Newspapers/Rex

She will take the agony aunt job, because it pays well, but it will give her no pleasure.  She will freelance on the side to make ends meet.

She is utterly practical, and long ago, as a young mother, had to put aside her own talents and needs for her sons.   Throughout the ’60s, Frances’s extended family  and expenses grow.  She and her two sons live on the lower floors of her mother-in-law Julia’s house; Julia charges no rent, but Frances must pay the utilities and other expenses.  Then her sons’ teenage friends begin to move in, dropping out of their families and schools, occupying every available room in the house.  Frances is an earth mother, feeding them every night, and is just absorbed enough in their family stories not to make them go home (though she stays in touch with their parents when possible).  And she worries, especially about her sons.

Both her sons have attended expensive schools, paid for by Julia.  Her oldest son, Andrew, is smoking dope in his room all day, a wastrel taking a year off before going to Cambridge.  Her younger son, Colin, wants to drop out of his progressive school.

Doris Lessing

As the extended family grows, Andrew and Colin have no choice but to mature.   Johnny’s second family, his stepdaughter, the anorexic Sylvia, and eventually her depressive mother Phyllida, move in.  Sylvia is very ill, might die, and Andrew comes out of his room to help her.  It is Julia who saves Sylvia, by simply not putting up with the anorexia:  Sylvia must eat and go to school if she wants to stay.  Sylvia eventually becomes a doctor.

The postwar generation are “screwed-up,” as Frances and Julia admit, because of the war.  They have everything they want, but want something more.  They pursue different dreams, that of course become the same dreams.

Over three decades, Lessing traces political movements and social change, from communism to civil rights and feminism, single motherhood and divorce to extended families that includes children’s friends,  au rigeur shoplifting and dropping out of school to yuppiehood and leadership, and the uselessness of “Mrs. Jellyby internnational aid organizations” when compared to the work of an individual, i.e.. Sylvia, a doctor in the bush

When the children grow up (and mostly leave), Frances can love again.  And though Frances finally lives  with a man she has known for years, another journalist who hates his profession, they can never give up writing altogether because relatives and friends still need their support.  Frances begins to write sociological books.

In the last 200 pages, Lessing shifts the action mainly to Africa.  Sylvia is the second heroine:  she is now the doctor at a mission, where the hospital is a few dusty huts and lean-tos in the bush. She treats over 40 patients a day, many with AIDS (called “Slim”).  And she forms strong relationships with people in the village.

Books are one of the most important things to the African villagers, and they need them for their school.  Sylvia buys them exercise books and reads to them from her few books, and then lends them out. But she begs Andrew to bring books for their small library when he visits, and sends him a list.  When Andrew forgets, Sylvia cries.

Now he remembered that when he was in her room he had seen shelves on the wall, and above it a printed card:  Library.  ‘Wait,’ he said, and went into her room.  She followed.  There were two books on the shelves, one  a dictionary and one, Jane Eyre.  Both were falling to pieces.  A sheet of paper was nailed to the brick:  Library Books.  Taken out:  Returned.  The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The Lord of the Rings.  Christ Stopped at Eboli.  The Grapes of Wrath.  Cry the Beloved Country…

You get the picture.

The dreams of Africa, of health, of decency are there–and there are small results.  It takes a family like the Lennoxes,to save people.  They cannot save everyone, but it is very moving what they can accomplish.

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“Woman with Laptop in Starbucks Beverly Hills” by Carlos G. Groppa

I tire myself out checking e-mail.  It’s not the best way to spend my breaks.  How much better to stretch, run, or bicycle.  There’s something meditative about half an hour of physical activity.  You don’t think, and then you think again.

Sometimes there’s a little desperation about the pursuit of e-culture.  One minute you’re googling wild fires in Idaho, the next  you’re watching R.E.M on YouTube, and then you’re tweeting about politics. You’re looking for something online….and then half an hour later you’re looking again.

They say it’s about short attention spans.  It’s also about long attention spans.  Think of all the lovingly written e-mail and blogs we read in a given day.  People love to write, and their day jobs don’t give them opportunities.

Imagine you work all day, say, as a paralegal.  You’re yelled at for missing some detail…you were tired.  And then you come home and turn on your computer and can say what you want at your blog.  You write about theater, art, or books.

Occasionally, for lack of anything better to do, journalists criticize amateur writing online.  Slate and the New York Times say social media are “too nice” and apparently keep critics from criticizing (how I’m not sure); and The Wall Street Journal says an unpublished study from Columbia claims there’s a lot of bragging on social media.  I don’t “do” social media (Facebook and Twitter) because I have so much e-mail, but the blogs I read are neither “too nice” nor “bragging” (because I get a little bored with that).  You have to be selective.

We need journalists to write journalism:   it’s not about the internet.  All their tweets and blogs aren’t going to save them from going out of business if they’re competing with their own print editions at websites.  We need our newspapers, even the pathetic one I subscribe to, which, after firing all the good columnists, is now mixing editorial content with news.

Doris Lessing

Of course journalists aren’t the only ones who criticize the internet. Some of my favorite novelists do.  They’re not worried about journalism, however:  they’re worried about the culture of books.

In Doris Lessing’s Nobel speech in 2007, “On Not Winning Prizes,”
she addressed the need for books in Africa and contrasted the reverence for books in Zimbabwe with the dwindling use of a library at a famous boys’ school in London.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

I love Doris Lessing dearly, and understand what she says about addiction.  I know what she means about the whole day going by, but it’s not the blogging:  it’s the etc.  She’s right to be worried about the culture of the book.  Although stats claim people are still reading, there are fewer bookstores, and we’re shopping online.

And even the act of reading has changed–it’s more fragmented.

In 2009, Philip Roth told The Guardian that fewer people read because of turning to the computer or TV.

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.

Do we all finish David Copperfield in two weeks?  No, that’s pretty fast.  And many of us read more than one book at a time, and it may take a while to finish them:  right now I have going Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Emma Hardy; Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman;  and a classic which I will write about later. And then there are my library books for reading in the car.

Would it be better if online writers wrote books?  Yes, undoubtedly,  but our culture doesn’t allow  everyone the time or attention span.  And perhaps that’s why blogging, tweeting, and email are so popular.  They demand less polish, but there’s still room to say what you think.

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Do you cook, wash the dishes, vacuum, swipe the pet hair off the couch with masking tape, use non-green cleanser in the toilet (because what else can get it clean?), and have no intention of ever washing mould off the bathroom walls?  Are you perhaps a housewife, or a working woman who does it all?

In Sheila Ballantyne’s stunning novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen, 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 done her art.

No wonder she likes to read the newspaper cover to cover.   The world has fallen apart:  the headlines strengthen her inextricable alienation.

LOCAL TEACHER SUFFERS FATAL HEART ATTACK IN CLEANING ESTABLISHMENT.

WIFE SHOOTS LOVERS IN TUB.

MARGARET MEAD STUDIES HER FAMILY.

MISTAKE BOMBING OF CIVILIANS.

Sheila Ballantyne

Published in 1975 and out-of-print, Ballantine’s powerful novel is a classic.   Her bold style and attention-deficit shifting of Norma Jean’s consciousness make this immensely entertaining.  It is a pastiche of Norma Jean’s intelligent, original, humorous stream-of-consciousness;  her fantasies of meeting Marcello Mastroianni (she loves 8 and 1/2 and other foreign films) or running away with the cashier at the organic grocery store (which doesn’t have a bathroom, so she has to advise her child to go outside); her fascination with ancient Egyptian culture; memories of college in the ’50s; quotations from ’70s classics like Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex; sessions with a psychiatrist; and incredible sense of isolation as she rebels against the culture.

She also describes scenes from everyday life.  When she takes her children to a fair one afternoon, they get stuck in traffic behind an accident and she has to be practical.  The children whine,  she gives them lollipops, and she is horrified but has to keep it controlled because accidents happen all the time.

Here are some of her observations about being home:

I hate Sundays because Martin always gets the good sections first and I can’t argue with him because I get them the rest of the week.  So I sit around, pouring coffee and flipping through the dregs and fillers, biding my time.  The children are all afflicted with the aimlessness that pervades everything on Sundays; sometimes they can find a friend to play with, and sometimes not.  Good parents usually take their children for a drive somewhere on Sundays, leaving the neighborhood more deserted than ever.  When the weather is good, we take ours somewhere too; sometimes we take them hiking through the environment so they will appreciate it when they’re grown, just on the chance that there will be some left.

The novel does not seem dated, except that the politics are more radical.  There’s no easy transition in this novel to a new romance or family, as there might be in a pop contemporary novel.  Work is needed:  not necessarily professional work, but creative work.  All the women in the suburbs are “wondering what to do with their lives.”  It’s a real, richly colored model of the suburban world.  Sheila’s own sculptures in the garage make a statement.

You may say attitudes toward work have changed today.  Sure, they have, but there’s still a lot of “work” to be done.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 46.7% of women were working in 2010, and the median weekly wage for women was  81% of a man’s wage. And 53.3% of women are at home.

Is work so great?  It’s more about fulfillment (which can be at home) and equal pay for equal work.

Are there any big differences?  Norma Jean reads different books, but  you’d get the drift if you substituted other books  (but it would be a less radical drift).  The children play with the same toys:  girls with Barbies and boys with action figures.  (Norma Jean is appalled to find them playing with Barbie and Ken in the missionary position:  she had forbidden Barbie and hates the fact that they don’t have genitals.)

Some of these ’70s novels (by Erica Jong, Marge Piercy, Alix Kates Shulman, Mary Gordon, etc.) chronicle a history of women.

Norma Jean does not want a divorce.  She wants work.  And this is a novel about a woman who isn’t afraid to scream to get what she wants.

I absolutely love this book and have to say it’s going to the top of my “If I Were Oprah (and Thank God I’m Not)” list.

I haven’t been able to find much information about Ballantyne (1936-2007) online.  She wrote two other books, the novel Imaginary Crimes and a collection of short stories, Life on Earth.  She won an O. Henry Award for her story, “Perpetual Care.”  She taught creative writing at Mills College from 1985 to 1997.

I look forward to reading her other books.

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