Archive for August, 2010

Because it’s dark at eight o’clock now I’m feeling depressed.  Not big depressed:  a little depressed. Summer is not officially over, but I’m imagining the winter. And although I accomplished a lot this summer–visited Bess Streeter Aldrich’s home, read Dickens, and took numerous bicycle trips–the darkness makes me think about all the things I didn’t do.

1.  I DIDN’T LOSE 20 POUNDS. Am I the only one out there who gains weight every time she takes a 40-mile bike ride?   But I did lose 10 pounds and at least my pants are loose now.  

A good place to take a bike break and eat M&Ms.


 2.  I didn’t read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil.  I tried to get my Latin group to read this Austrian novel with me, but they’re really more interested in military history.  There’s nothing like Caesar or Tacitus if you’re a historian with no time for poetry.  Of course I push the Latin literature on them and did manage to get a couple of them to read Virgil, some of it in the original.   And I can’t really blame them for not reading Broch, because even though Virgil is the protagonist,  Broch’s writing is so bad…I should revive my German so I can judge properly.  It’s probably a lost novel because of the translation.  

3. I didn’t take that gardening class I’ve always intended to take.  Damn!  But we do have a lot of zucchini out there.  I actually saw a few bees among the flowers.  Yea!  They’re not all dead.

I want more light and time outdoors.  We have three more months of sun, don’t you think?  And then the snow falls.

WHAT I’M READING NOW:  I am completely absorbed in  Rose Macaulay’s Staying with Relations.  It is far from her best novel and I shouldn’t recommend it except to Macaulay aficionados, but this lovely entertaining hybrid of a novel is just so much fun!  Set in Guatemala, Mexico, and California, it combines family drama, witty dialogue, exotic descriptions of the jungle, adultery, a kidnapping, a theft, a satiric episode about American con-men in Central America that reads like a wild West adventure, and a crazy ship-and-car road trip in which Catherine and two of her step-cousins track the fattish little man who robbed the buried treasure on the hacienda.  Catherine, a novelist lecturing in Philadelphia, is invited by her aunt to come stay with the family on a hacienda in Guatemala.  The story begins from Catherine’s point-of-view, but Macaulay shifts viewpoints and evenly divides the narrative among Catherine’s relatives:  her high-strung young cousin, Isie, who looks like an empty-minded Juno but is actually nervous, demanding, and emotional; Isie’s shell-shocked husband, Adrian, who is having an affair with Isie’s stepsister;and three lounging languorous English step-cousins, the spinsterish Claudia, beautiful Julia, and witty Benet.   Catherine’s assumptions turn out to be mostly wrong about her relatives, and Macaulay has fun satirizing novelists’ observations.

Here is a passage from one of the serious parts of Macaulay’s novel, from the point of view of Isie, who recites poetry to herself as, escaped from kidnappers, she tries to find her way home through the jungle.

“It was gentle and consoling to be thus for a space withdrawn into poetry and tears. Drained at last of emotion, she lifted tired, swollen eyes and looked about her, and saw how the little plants and leaves grew out of the crevices in pillars and walls.  There, near by, was the fever grass, that one eats to cure malaria, and beneath it the nettle that one chews when one has inadvertently been spattered by the milky juice of the poison-wood tree.”

I have no idea whether Rose Macaulay traveled to Guatemala or not.  But the descriptive parts of her novel make me want to rush to Guatemala, though it’s not a vacation spot these days (is it?), and the beautiful passages about the jungle reminds me of the scenes in W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, which I love.

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When I first read The Wings of the Dove, I was on a Henry James binge. During frequent breaks at work, I read James on the roof of the office building.  “Go on; take a break,” my boss used to say. He didn’t particularly mind what I did so long as I got my work done.  And The Wings of the Dove proved to be one of my favorite reading experiences, much to the astonishment of those who couldn’t get through The Turn of the Screw.

Perhaps The Wings of the Dove does not quite rank up there with The Golden Bowl, but this elegant novel is one of James’s best.  Not all, however, like it:  some despise what they consider the heroine Milly Theale’s weakness:  kindness.   Milly, the charming, generous, thoughtful, witty young American heroine of The Wings of the Dove, was one of James’s favorite characters, based on his idealized cousin, Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis.  Milly, who is trying to hide her serious illness from her chaperone, Susie, as they travel,  has no experience of English society and is dazzled by Susie’s rich friends in England. Milly trusts the people she shouldn’t trust, because Susie is also an innocent.  Kate Croy, a brilliant English “friend” who is dependent on a rich aunt, discovers that Milly is dying and plots to fleece her of her money.   Kate  persuades her boyfriend, Merton Densher, a journalist, to pretend to be in love first with Kate and then with Milly, while Kate pretends to despise him.  When Milly dies, he will inherit the money; then he and Kate will marry.

Densher, to give him some credit, is not as sociopathic as Kate.  At one point, when it is clear their plot has been uncovered, he says:

“We’ve played our dreadful game and we’ve lost.  We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our feelings for ourselves and for each other, not to wait another day. Our marriage will–fundamentally, somehow, don’t you see?–right everything that’s wrong, and I can’t express to you my impatience.  We’ve only to announce it–and it takes off the weight.”

And he is relieved.

But Kate, strangely, continues the game.  

It is ridiculous to blog about Henry James–I could spend days and weeks and months writing a paper on those lines above.  But I love James, and I urge you to read him if you haven’t.  It’s a complete luxury to have time to read this kind of novel.

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I’ve been meaning to write about Julie Orringer’s beautifully-written novel, The Invisible Bridge, but it’s one of those spellbinding books that is yet difficult to analyze.    I bought it on on my birthday, vaguely remembering some good reviews, and became instantly immersed in her world.  (It temporarily ended my resolution to read Leonard Woolf, though I have managed to get back to him since.)  

Orringer’s world of Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew who wins a scholarship to study architecture in Paris in the late 1930s, is not an easy place to inhabit.  Hitler and the Nazis are on the rise.  A friend is beaten up by a political anti-Jew group.  Andras falls in love with 31-year-old Klara Morganstern, a Jewish ballet teacher who fled Hungary as a pregnant teenager after witnessing a policeman’s killing of her lover and herself killing the officer who raped her.  He doesn’t find out her secret for months, or know why she can never return to Budapest. His brother, who studies medicine in Italy, is in love with an Orthodox Jew whose husband deserts her. Their lives are complicated. The onset of war affects all of them.   Orringer painstakingly describes Chamberlain’s horrifying sell-out to Hitler; France and England’s treaty with Hitler; and the Jews’ dismay and persecution.

Orringer doesn’t try to play tricks: this is a carefully-researched chronological narrative. She includes stories of her relatives.   Long parts of this novel are so adept and dramatic that I’m thinking, National Book Award? It is a glorious page-turner, controlled, vivid, and extremely sad.

I haven’t finished this yet–I have a few books going at once, including my Leonard Woolf–but wanted to assure you that this impressive debut novel is well-worth reading.

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On the bike trail.

BICYCLING:  I haven’t written much about bicycling lately.  It’s been hot and wet; many local trails are flooded; and the last few rides we’ve taken haven’t been much fun, the trails wrecked and eroded or under construction.

But today we managed a short ride (22 miles) on a trail that has dried up, and it was very easy.  The crazy thing was on the way back a young(er) woman passed me with her husband and I suddenly felt very competitive.  I started riding very fast, then decided I was ridiculous, then heard, “Go!  Go!” from my husband, and just zoomed along and finished the trail five minutes ahead of her.  Way to go!  I am either the least competitive of women (many of my friends say this) or the most competitive of women (a few friends say this).  At any rate, this is the third time in a decade that I have felt the urge to beat somebody.  Was it my peanut butter sandwich?

As a rule I compete against myself and attempt to beat  my personal record.  And that is much better…

BOOKS:  On my bike break today, I read Rose Macaulay’s Staying with Relations.  I love Rose Macaulay, was enthralled with Dangerous Ages last week, and am very much enjoying SWR.  The back cover blurb says: “Catherine Grey, ‘like so many young females, a novelist,’ is invited by her aunt to the family’s old Spanish plantation deep in the rain forest of Guatemala…”

I’ll review  this later.  Maybe next week.

BOOKER PRIZE NEWS:  The Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced on Sept. 7.  Wow, that’s coming up.  So far I’ve read two and a half on the longlist (one I couldn’t finish) and, amazingly, have acquired three more, Room (from Rhonda.  Thanks again!), The Betrayal, and The Slap.  I’m not sure I can finish these in the next week so I may assign one to a reluctant friend (who is busy reading the classics and has little time for this) or grab a soundbyte from someone else, another blogger or someone who comments here (please!).  Let me know if you’ve read any of them.

“TOMORROW”:  I love the apocalyptic rock of Morrissey and, if only it weren’t a requirement of bicycling to drift and be slightly dazed and bored, I would listen to Morrissey on my iPod as I bicycle.  Think how much faster I would go!  But it can be dangerous to listen to music as you bicycle because you don’t hear the traffic and truckers have been known to  run down bicyclists here.  

But Morrissey’s strange, gloomy, intense, sometimes apocalyptic songs are excellent to listen to while walking and definitely accelerate the pace.  Here’s a quote from “Tomorro” and the video:

Will it really come?
And if it does come,
Will I still be human?

It’s not really apocalyptic in the song’s context, but I still call it apo-rock.

Here is the YouTube video:

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Usually nothing happens “off the grid,” i.e., living simply in an old house, bicycling instead of driving, doing without a photo ID, and “supporting culture” by buying a lot of books (yes, I know I should go to the library all the time, but there are limits), but here’s the latest dilemma.

This looks pretty much like my stove.

We own a charming 1920 Arts & Crafts house with one terrible flaw:  a tiny kitchen renovated by the previous owner in 1964.  It looks like a toy kitchen.   There is no counter space.  The tiny refrigerator is cramped and barely fits under a built-in cupboard. The minuscule electric stove was built-in to the cabinets–it seems to be glued there or something.

The other day a burner on the stove sparked and sort of blew up.  I didn’t want to yell, “Fire!” out the back door and panic the neighborhood, so I called to my husband, “Please come in here quickly.”  When this got no response, “IT’S AN EMERGENCY.”

Thank God the fire (really just a small flame) lasted for only two seconds and then went out by itself.

But now we have a problem.  Although we have thus far resisted paying $10,000 or whatever to renovate the kitchen, the stove now looks ominous.  It’s just not cute anymore.  When I asked my new best friend, the stove guy, where we could put a stove if we had to replace it, he pessimistically said, “In the living room.” 

I hope he was kidding.

So now I’m wondering:  do we live on salads and sandwiches? The slow cooker?  Buy a microwave?

If you know how to get parts for a 1964 stove, let me know.  

Right now I wish I had a new kitchen with one of those magic computerized stoves.  That would definitely put me back on the grid, though!

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Our public library.


There I was.  Three books at the automatic check-out and no library card.  Dumping the contents of my bag, I couldn’t find the card.   So I picked up my bicycle helmet and books, slung my bag over my shoulder, and approached the library circulation clerk.  She had to be more humane than the self-check-out machine.   

“I forgot my library card,” I said, smiling apologetically.  “Ironically, I took it out of my billfold at home to reserve some books online.  Can I check books out on a credit card?”

“You can use a photo ID,” she said.

“I don’t have a photo ID.  I don’t drive.” 

She looked briefly sympathetic.  It’s not as though she doesn’t recognize me, for God’s sake.  I’ve been coming here for years.  So why give me any trouble?

You would think not driving would be a good thing.  I made a conscious decision not to learn to drive because cars are  the biggest, or almost the biggest, polluters of the environment.   

So I’m an underground woman.  Usually nobody cares.

To get a photo ID, you have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  If you need a photo ID instead of a driver’s license, presumably you don’t drive.   The DMV is inaccessible by bus or bicycle.  Doesn’t make sense, does it? You can’t get there.

My philosophy is: stay underground as long as you can.

I used to be able to fly. That was banned without a photo ID a couple of years ago.  Even with photo IDs, people have trouble.  A family member was recently delayed on some kind of random check.  

A sympathetic circulation clerk gave me a library card years ago on the basis of my birth certificate and mail. She was a rebel, too. It was pretty obvious to her that I wasn’t going to steal books.

“I’ll make an exception this time.”

That’s when people used to be human.

Now?  It’s more a rules-are-rules thing.  The circulation clerk agreed to hold my books.  She slapped a cardboard sign with HOLD on top of them and left them on the counter.  She said I could come back later with my card.  She didn’t need my name.

Casual, huh?

I thought about trying to check them out with my credit card  later with another clerk, just out of stubbornness.  But in the end it was too much trouble.  My husband gave me a ride downtown.  I couldn’t face the rush-hour traffic on my bicycle.

I’ve got my books now.  But I had to ride in a car.

It kind of ruins my day.

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A. S. Byatt, the Booker Prize winner in 1990 for Possession, has won the James Tait Black Award for her stunning novel, The Children’s Book, shortlisted for the Booker last year.  I was convinced that she would win the Booker and was surprised that Hilary Mantel not only won this but almost every other prize, including the National Book Critics Circle Award (an American award).  Thank goodness Byatt won something for this masterpiece.

On Aug. 20 Byatt also made the controversial statement at the Edinburgh international book festival that women who write intellectual fiction encounter difficulties.  “If you are trying to think, there are always reviewers who take the attitude that it’s like a dog standing on its hind legs, as Samuel Johnson put it: it would be better if you didn’t do it.”  

She also said she cried when a publisher tried to cut out big chunks of her poetry from the Booker-winning novel Possession.

Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian was all over Byatt about her statements about women and quoted A. L. Kennedy, Ian Rankin, and John Carey as disagreeing with Byatt about intellectual women writers.   Kennedy (the only woman) cited herself as an intellectual writer who has not had a hard time and said Byatt was “dated.”  Ian Rankin vaguely said he thought Byatt was wrong and that he had studied Muriel Spark in school. Gosh, Mr. Rankin, she may be dead now! 🙂 Carey, a professor emeritus at Oxford and a former Booker judge, mentioned George Eliot.  One has to groan.  Weren’t we talking about contemporary writers?

Higgins of The Guardian seems to have found exactly what she wanted to hear:  otherwise I see no reason for quoting two men and one woman.   She also made no attempt to gather any stats on what’s being published by women:  romances & chick lit vs. the intellectual fiction of Byatt, Deborah Eisenberg, Margaret Drabble, and…well, there’s obviously somebody else out there.  She could have waited a day to publish and called the British version of Publishers Weekly, but instead we’ve basically got a rock review here.   Whether Byatt is right or wrong, you have to do a little legwork to prove or disprove her point.  

But of course Byatt also condemned the Orange Prize and you know that’s going to make a few enemies.  I don’t necessarily agree with her about everything, but there is a lot of junk being published now  and perhaps less intellectual fiction among both genders.  Of course I read my share of junk and intend to sit down with a Georgette Heyer or Victoria Holt later!   

LEONARD WOOLF:  I read more of Leonard Woolf’s Growing today and was especially impressed by his explicit horrifying description of capital punishment in Ceylon.  As part of his job as an administrator in Kandy he was required to stand in front of the gallows in the early morning and give the signal for the “drop.”  He said that in two out of six or seven hangings something went wrong:

“a body went on twitching violently and the executioner went and pulled on the legs.  In the other case four men had to hang one morning and they were hanged two by two.  The first two were hanged correctly, but either they gave one of the second two too big a drop or something else went wrong for his head was practically torn from his body and a great jet of blood spurted up three or four feet, covering the gallows and the priest praying on the steps.”

He pointed out that all the evidence in all countries indicates that these killings do not deter others from crime.  He adds that  sensational coverage in newspapers inspires copycat crime.

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