More Alice Munro than Rosamond Bernier

Delightful as the Bernier was, it’s an unrealistic lesson in being a person upon whom nothing is lost. If you’re on your way to see Picasso and Joan Miró invites you over, you would be churlish to doze or miss your sense that something was happening. And sometimes, my New York life does seem to approach the glamour of Bernier’s. But sometimes, reading Bernier, it’s hard not to feel a bit frumpy.

Up here on the St. Lawrence River where I spend my July, I’m not likely to run into a Picasso or a Miró. Instead, I try to pay Henry James levels of attention to the characters of this Northern New York landscape.  We are, after all, just across the River from Ontario and it feels like Munro country up here, with teens zooming around on Gators, overly tanned boaters sitting on barstools, overweight mothers sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs in front yards that don’t look onto the water.

Chaumont Barrents from http://nnytrails.freehostia.com/map1.htm

Last weekend, after my husband headed back down to the city for work, my daughters, my mother-in-law and I headed to the Chaumont Barrens, a Nature Conservancy spot. It was glorious and strange, just a 1.75 mile flat loop through a rare alvar grassland—thin soil, prairie plants (some rare, though I don’t know plants well enough to tell this; all rare in upstate New York). Many of the trees had exposed roots. Some of the forested areas were lush with brilliant, thin, chartreuse grass on the floor. We found some fossils.

Being Sunday, the Amish farmstand my mother-in-law sometimes goes to was closed, but near it was another. I could see zinnia and sunflowers as we whizzed past, so I determined to stop on the way home. Not only flowers, but Amish-made soap, jams, baskets, eggs, summer squash, and other treats. There was some pretty blowsy dill in a jar with a sign: “come to the house if you want us to cut you fresh dill.” And another sign saying everything at the stand was grown at the farm or by local Amish craftspeople. We were choosing flowers when the farmer came up, a plump man in jeans, a work shirt, and a worn baseball cap. “There’ll be a lot more coming. We had our first glads this morning, but they were gone right away. There’ll be more. And peppers. Hot peppers.”

“Corn?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, I should have corn, but the raccoons thought it was ready before I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if they’d eat a whole ear. But they take a bite of one, then eat one side of another. I don’t hunt and we don’t have a dog. What can I do?" He paused.  "I can’t kill anything.”

I murmured my assent, amazed and so touched, in this land of hunters and signs saying “Quickest way to Heaven: Trespassing on my Property,” to find such a kind soul.

When he said, “I can’t kill anything,” he meant it. Supremely. He said it was important to grow enough for everyone, but that this was the first year he’d ever had trouble with raccoons. He wondered aloud what to do next. I thought about the obese raccoon who used to waddle around my college campus, gorging on pizza he found in the dumpster, but I worried that if I talked about college, I’d make a wedge between us rather than a connection.

We took our sunflowers, our zinnias. He wished us well and we were on our way.

Rosamond Bernier!!

I won’t have the order of this quite right, but I know that I have Rosamond Bernier’s not-to-be-missed memoir on my shelves because Emma Straub, Lauren Cerand, and my father were all raving about it.

But then, in another mood, I hesitated to read a book about a fabulously wealthy woman—it seemed trivial, out of key with my own struggles and with the work I was trying to do.

Of course, moods change, and this summer with no Dalloway deadlines, I thought I might dip into something light. (As you can see, from what’s been appearing here, it’s been fairly light fare all month.)

Born to a wealthy family (her mother was English and died when Bernier was quite young, her father, an American Jew), Bernier grew up in and around the Philadelphia Orchestra. She dropped out of college to marry Lewis Riley, Jr. She lived with him in Mexico City where she became acquainted with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry. Her musicianship and acquaintance with composers, conductors, and artists, set her on her amazing life path, from features editor for American Vogue to founding editor of L’OEIL to esteemed lecturer on fine arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bernier writes affectionately of her brief first marriage and with tremendous, joyous wonder of her happy, third marriage to the art critic John Russell. The second husband is only mentioned as the source of complications. It’s a kind of social death for him through very controlled, polite restraint. Curious and sad, but not to be dwelt on when there is so much joy and genius all around her and she is so generous and funny about it.

Bernier is clearly the kind of woman to whom amazing, exciting things happen. The striking cover photo of her in a lovely satin slip, lounging in a four-poster bed came about one night when she couldn’t find any lodging in rural France one night in 1947—nothing, until the man she had come to interview offered her the chance to spend the night in Madame de Sevigné’s bed.

The book is beautifully written and full of amazing anecdotes—stories of what Picasso said to her, what Lenny Bernstein did for her, what she made of Jane and Paul Bowles, how Frida Kahlo probably liked her because she had a pet monkey.

The anecdotes of the famous are great and, when you read it, you’ll have your own favorites, but I keep thinking about a simpler and perhaps even more amzing story: her first husband had a small airplane (it’s nice to be rich) and taught her to fly. She writes that she has a terrible sense of direction, but flying in Acapulco was easy: she would just take off and fly along the coast until she found a beach that she liked the look of and land there for a day of swimming and bathing.

That world is gone, and perhaps that’s to the good. But I suspect the spirit of the young woman who seized that chance to explore is what made her such a trusted confidante of so many of the great artists of the past century.

A delight.

Not really a review of Spinster

Among English professors these days, there is a debate about world literature. What is the best way to teach literature from countries and cultures other than our own? How can we introduce students to different cultures without imposing our own values on them? This is a complex question, but I think it’s safe to say that Kate Bolick’s book offers a kind of limit case on moving too far in the direction of writing what you know.

If there are dangers in spreading your expertise too thin, in pretending to be able to teach a Mongolian short story, a Kenyan poem, a Uruguayan essay, surely the greater danger lies in thinking that red-headed women from New England who move to New York City to become writers is a meaningful category.

Still, with expectations low, I devoured Spinster. My mom did, too. And, judging by the publicity it received, we are not alone. Nor are we alone in finding that the book has left a bit of a sour taste, that its narrowness suggests a profound failure of imagination. The articles in Slate and the LA Review of Books offer a more thorough take-down of the book than I have the patience to compose. I wanted instead to write about the value that the book might continue to have, in spite of its flaws. So, I went flipping back through the pages I marked in the book, to see what there might be that’s worth sharing.

So disappointing to find nothing. 

Desperate Characters

A few years ago, I did a favor for a friend and, in thanks, he sent me a copy of Paula Fox’s 1970 novel Desperate Characters. Seeing him again in June prompted me to read the book. It’s an amazing small novel about a prosperous, cultured, and childless couple in Brooklyn. The husband is fighting with his law partner; the wife feeds a stray cat. They say things that are not as kind as they probably should be. But the stray cat scratches her, the scratch gets infected, she ignores it and goes off to a dinner party anyway. Even though that’s about it, it manages to be a sinister novel, full of rage and smart observations about gentrification, marriage, and aging.

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in novels about writers living in Brooklyn.

The pleasure of it comes from the precision of the writing. Let me give you a flavor, from some of the passages that struck me.

I liked this one: a wife’s reaction to her husband’s refusal to throw away some very worn underwear: “He sounded rather plaintive. She felt kinder toward him. There was something funny about people’s private little preferences and indulgences, something secretive and childlike and silly. She laughed at him and his soft old underwear.”

Or this description of a party-goer’s pretentious stoner son: “At the very hint of an idea from me, he smiles at me gently as though I were eternally damned.” 

Thanks, Drew!

The Road from Coorain & the Good-natured All-rounder

There was a time, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before Mel Gibson went crazy, when Mel Gibson was wonderful, when Australia was very much at the center of the popular imagination. Gallipoli, Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock fired our (or my) imaginations.

My copy of The Road from Coorain comes from that time, and its cover boasts “In the tradition of My Brilliant Career…” but I never read it until now. I might not have read it at all, but my father picked it up and sent me a quotation from it, which reminded me that it had been on my bookshelf all along.

I’m thinking a lot—more, even than usual—about women’s lives, women’s educations, and how ordinary women grow into extraordinary ones, the kind of women who embolden themselves to change the world. Jill Ker Conway, a historian and former president of Smith College is such a woman.

Jill Ker Conway’s memoir of growing up on a sheep farm in rural Australia, her efforts to get out, and her gradual realization that education could become a way for her to leave home, leave her grieving widowed mother behind without forcing a rupture of her bond or her daughterly duty. That interests me so profoundly. The mother’s demand almost derailed Vera Brittain: she did return home from nursing near the trenches when her mother had a breakdown during the War. The mother’s demand threatens to derail Conway, too. And I’m interested in these women, conventional but ambitious woman, who worry over hurting feelings and try to figure out how to achieve without causing a rupture:

“Some of the inner tension went out of me because I saw a solution to the dilemma I could discuss with no one. If I were to become a success academically and chose a career which would take me away from Sydney, it would finesse the whole question of leaving home” (168)

Divas and revolutionaries are amazing, but what fuels my imagination more, these days, are meditations like this one, on the problem of women’s leadership:

“We were an elite. Ergo we were born to be leaders. However, the precise nature of the leadership was by no means clear. For some of our mentors, excelling meant a fashionable marriage and leadership in philanthropy. For others, it meant intellectual achievement and the aspiration to a university education. Since the great majority of the parents supporting the school favored the first definition, the question of the social values which should inform leadership was carefully glossed over. Eminence in the school’s hierarchy could come form being a lively and cheerful volunteer, a leader in athletics, or from intellectual achievement. The head girl was always carefully chosen to offend no particular camp aligned behind competing definitions. She was always a good-natured all-rounder.” (102)

The good-natured all-rounder. What a fantastic phrase. It calls to mind all those amazing athletic, pretty, kind, smart girls of advertising: Gibson girls, Ivory girls, Breck girls. What pressure we put on ourselves to be that impossible girl.

Then, this observation about an early, wonderful boyfriend interested me: “In his company I enjoyed the experience an intellectual woman needs most if she has lived in a world set on undermining female intelligence: I was loved for what I was rather than the lesser mind I pretended to be” (179). This observation, about what women want, reminded me of a less wholesome version of the same thing, from Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements, on John Middleton Murry: "He also managed to be both coldly self-involved and extremely needy, which proved to be an irresistible combination to women with strong personalities who did not want to be entirely in control” (93).

And finally, I leave you with this Didion-esque observation about the misery of women living in bohemia:

“The women, having rejected bourgeois fashion, often seemed rather drab. They talked intensely about ideas, but their eyes were watchful because it required close attention to sort out the shifting amatory relationships of the group. When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was to explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others” (221)

I love how, unlike Didion, who experiences the communes of the sixties with misery, Conway just feels impatient and irritated.

It’s not too late. This memoir, beloved in the late-1980’s, is still terrific.

God Help the Child

Toni Morrison’s latest book is so short, so good, that I found myself reading slowly, only allowing myself a few pages at night, so that it would last a little longer. She knows how to write the fables that we need and, still in the book’s spell, I found myself thinking about Sandra Bland, her too-short life, her unjust death.

A friend asked what could justice look like for Sandra Bland’s mother. I don’t know. I remember my own pride when I was twenty-eight, my life ahead of me, my heart and mind full of hope and energy. No one wants to bury a child. I continue to struggle over the expressions of forgiveness articulated by the family members of those shot in Charleston. On the one hand, grace is a beautiful, amazing, even miraculous gift. And yet, forgiveness offered too early may not be forgiveness at all, but a sign of a spirit too beaten down to ask for what is right.

Every character in Morrison’s book has been touched by violence, often brutal sexual abuse of children. Each character bears the scars of that violence and the novel moves from person to person, as each must come to terms with how they bear those scars, how long to hold on to grief, and when to let it go. For me, Morrison’s novel offers a way to think through pain and violence, neither to deny its power to hurt to the marrow, nor to permit it to break the spirit. These are not easy questions, but they matter. 

I, Claudius

22 July 2015

 I recently became Faculty Senate President at my university. Were I a practical person, I might spend some of my summer reading Robert’s Rules of Order so that I can run senate meetings in good order. Instead, I decided on I, Claudius.

Robert Graves has been in the background for years. Watching I, Claudius with my parents is one of my favorite memories of growing up and it turned me into a lifelong Derek Jacobi fan. I was a young adolescent and my father started turning out the lights when there’d be an orgy scene to preserve us all from mortification. A few episodes in to the series, and we didn’t even bother to turn on the lights.

But I didn’t read him. I used The White Goddess extensively, but only dipping in here and there, when studying for my comprehensive exams. But I didn’t read Goodbye to All That as part of my modernist training or in my more recent World War I reading. I only read a few of his poems. But, last summer, I took a break from World War I and read Emma Straub’s beachy The Vacationers. Set in Majorca, where Graves lived much of his live, it has a Graves subplot. I started paying attention. Then, as I have been learning the ropes of the Senate, I thought that perhaps the tale of a middle-aged historian who successfully outwits the Roman Senate and some pretty mad emperors to become emperor himself might amuse me.

Boy did it!

I listened on my (very slow) runs, which turns out to be a lovely way to experience Graves. While some of the descriptions of battle tactics were of limited interest, they were mainly about battles with Germany and that, in itself was fascinating: to imagine Graves, a World War I veteran who’d been wounded at the Somme, studying Roman history and combing it for stories of German bravery, German military might, German failures of leadership. Some of the digs are a little silly—as when Claudius, who narrates the story in a wonderfully intimate, confiding, slightly fussy voice, pretends to explain what beer is to his imagined future Roman audience: the Germans love this fermented beverage made from grain which somewhat resembles wine. Others are more poignant. There is an extended meditation on what power the Germans might wield if they ever overcome their barbarity and become civilized that, if a bit heavy-handed, moved me.

I also enjoyed the reflections on power and strategy: what senators did to stay alive in spite of Tiberius’s increasing tyranny, Tiberius’s preference for Caligula because a tyrant who needs to be loved should pick a lesser man and a more evil one as his successor.

 

Best of all, to me, however, were Claudius’ reflections on the difference between scholarship and public life. As he’s impressed into the emperor-ship on the final page, he muses—and asks us to wonder what it is that he thinks of—Graves offers a great list: his great, murdered brother Germanicus, his family, the Republic which he would have preferred to restore? No. He thinks: well, now people will certainly read my histories. That did make me laugh.

Telling all this to a friend, he suggested that perhaps I should read The Godfather next. Perhaps I will.

 

 

A London Address: the Artangel Essays

I have been trying to take notes on some of the books I read last month, including this thin little collection of essays, A London Address from Granta.

It's really not worth saying much about, except that it's a document worth knowing: a dozen writers of diverse backgrounds and literary styles were invited to stay in a London apartment built to look like the ship in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and write an essay about London today, with an eye cast back to Contrad, too. The occasional pieces, by Teju Cole, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Toíbin and others are mostly very occasaional indeed, but I enjoyed reading them.

Website with more information is here

Mushrooms, or there are no coincidences

The other day, my mother-in-law asked me if I had any friends at yoga.

I don’t. But there are people there whom I see every summer when I go to my thrice-weekly yoga class in the Victorian pavilion overlooking the St. Lawrence River. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I leave our cottage at 7:20 and drive upriver and over the bridge to Wellesley Island to practice with a bunch of other summer people. There are my teacher’s parents, in their 80’s and fit. There is the lady, at least fifteen years my senior, who has an amazing handstand sequence. There are the young moms. The triathletes. There is the hippie woman who is an educator. And there is the mushroom lady. Or that’s what I think of her as.

When I started going to these yoga classes during our Julys at the River four years ago, I felt very very shy. But one morning I couldn’t help myself. There had been a sudden rain and a whole bunch of large—Portobello-sized—mushrooms had popped out overnight. It was wonderful. I turned to the woman next to me and told her what I’d seen. She grew enthusiastic: If I was interested in mushrooms, there was a talk at the library next week….

Abashed, I confessed that mine was no more than a passing interested, but since then, I’ve thought of her as the mushroom lady. I like her.

So, when my mother-in-law asked on a Monday if I’d seen my friends, I admitted that I recognized many and was happy to see the mushroom lady again.

On Wednesday, my older daughter came with me. The teacher made some announcements, including the one that Jean, she pointed to the mushroom lady, would be leading a mushroom foraging event at the State Park on Saturday. It turns out she is the President of the Central New York Mycological Society.

What are the chances that the one time in my life I mention wild mushrooms to someone it would be her?

And what are the chances that later that day, I would spot these beauties on my walk with Flynn, the wonder hound?

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

We are up on the St. Lawrence River this month, as we usually are in July. I brought The Summer Book with me again, an my copy here joins the one I left behind last year. Embarrassed by the duplication, I read it.

While I had a lot to say about my mixed feelings about Offill, I’m not sure how to explain the small delights of this wonderful book—or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the patience on this gorgeous July day to try. This novel in stories from 1972 by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books, is a little wonder and a great, unsentimental, gorgeous summer read. The New York Review of Books reprint includes her illustrations.

It tells the story of young Sophia, based, apparently, on Jansson’s niece of the same name, who spends her summer on an island off the Finnish coast with her elderly grandmother and her Papa. Papa is a minor character—mostly, he has his back to his mother and daughter, sitting hunched over the table, working. Sophia’s mother is dead and, as Kathryn Davis notes in her lovely introduction to this volume, that absence is about all the plot of the book.

Episodes cover the small events of an island summer: a storm, the arrival of a cat, a nouveau riche neighbor, a night in a tent, Papa’s sudden desire for a garden. Both grandmother and Sophia are moody. They irritate each other, cheat at cards, I particularly liked the one in which Grandmother constructs Venice of balsa wood. She sets it next to the water but a storm overnight destroys her models. Rather than upset the already fragile and tantrum-y child, she builds another model and then, to make it look as though it survived the storm, she tosses tea and the contents of her ashtray on the new model.

A deeply charming book. Highly recommended.

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

When I read a book, I have gotten into the habit of folding down the bottom corners of pages that have things I might want to remember. Folding the top corner is for when I don’t have a bookmark, which is often. The bottom corner is a compromise with myself: I want to cultivate the skating speed of reading without a pen without giving up the ability to keep track of the important bits for later. There was no real good reason to take notes on Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, except that the praise has been so extravagant and I’m ambivalent about it. Is it good? I’m not sure: I think it’s gimmicky.

I bought it in Seattle at Elliott Bay on the strength of a shelf tag.

It certainly did amuse me, and, in moments move me. I was disappointed, though, that that title notion—of the loss of a sense of wonder and speculation that comes when a couple marries and has children—is so underdeveloped. The poetry of a Dept. of Speculation is beautiful, and the idea that that was the return address for early letters between husband and wife is really lovely. Like Woolf’s devastating story about the death of a marriage, “Lappin and Lapinova,” Offill approaches the idea of how fantasy, joy, and play can leach out of a marriage over time. But then, maddenly, she retreats from it.

The plot is thin: a woman who never imagined marrying marries a nice man. They have a child. Both creative types, they live in Brooklyn (snore) and watch as their careers fail to take off. The birth of their only child further derails the mother, who is frustrated by and enamored of the way the baby consumes her. (Snore!) She gets depressed. He cheats on her. They fight their way back to each other.

The structure is either mildly experimental or a gimmick, depending on your attitude: the story develops by  paragraphs, each separated by a blank line, some more related to the story than others. Some are jokes. Some are about work. In others, developments in the unnamed husband and wife’s life (the baby’s colic, the husband’s affair), emerge as if they’ve happened in the blank spaces. Not a new technique but one that does make the reading go fast.

Occasionally, the interruption of meta-commentary about how this story would or would not pass muster in the fiction workshops the mother herself teaches are funny, as “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? / WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?” as a comment that could go on almost any early draft of a student story. Occasionally they just reminded me that I might rather read a more patiently developed tale.

But a few things struck me as interesting, worth saving. For example, the moment when a very young man attends a dinner party of thirty-somethings and seems to judge them: “’You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’ someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.” Or the description of going to the grocery store, as a sleep-deprived new mother: “Later my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”

But when I told the second to my mother, trying to explain why this novel might have some value, she just said, “That’s why I always make a list.”

Indeed. (You should hear her on Ferrante.)

I like the edge of disturbance in this one: “Here is what happens in middle age: Some friends and acquaintances who were merely eccentric for years become unmistakably mad.”

And I liked this “’You look great,’ her ex says. ‘Amazing actually.’ Everyone has been saying that to her lately. That she looks radiant, glowing. She refuses to mention the yoga. It isn’t that. It’s that the scrim has fallen away. All right, all right, maybe it’s the yoga. It’s true that it’s hard to work the scrim thing in conversationally.”

As a whole, the piece had the feel of autobiography. I got a strong sense of Offill’s intelligence and of the main character’s depression, but I don’t think this his much more than an amuse-bouche of a book.

Rilke remembered

The first-year book at my campus this year--the one that incoming students are encouraged to read and reflect on over the summer--is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I was asked to contribute a brief reflection on the text to get discussion going, and I thought I'd share it here, too:

 

I've always thought of Rilke as a poet for grown-ups, a serious poet, and I can date my respect for him back to the summer that I graduated from high school. I was a dishwasher in a small café in Seattle, getting ready to move East for college. There was a waiter there, a very handsome man, smart and curious about the world--maybe he was an actor--about thirty, divorced, with a small child. He was a real grown-up and it meant a lot to me that he treated me with respect, asked me questions, and encouraged me to take my life seriously. Before I left for school, he invited me to his apartment for dinner: a very adult occasion for me, and he gave me a copy of Rilke's Selected Poems, translated by Robert Bly. I didn't know about Rilke, but coming from that smart grown-up who seemed to think I was smart made me think Rilke important. It's a dual language edition, with German on the left page and the English on the right. On the inside cover, he had painted a funny cat wearing glasses and written: "Anne: CONGRADUATION!"                

I devoured Letters to a Young Poet when I was in college, eager then, as now, for any and all advice for how to live a great life, be an artist, express myself in the best and most authentic way. My friend knew I was about to change my life by moving away from home and getting an education. In giving me Rilke, he armed me with a little courage to use my education to make a real change. 

Looking back through my copy of the poems tonight, the bookmark rests half way through, at Rilke's great poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the one that ends: "You must change your life."

The Lantern Bearers

I'm working on a piece on Margaret Wise Brown--writing this, in fact, from the divine Wertheim Study Room of the New York Public Library. One way to know that research is going is when you find yourself somewhere new and unexpected. Or, in this case, somewhere old and unexpected. So, I followed Brown's biographer to William James and his Talks to Teachers (1899). (My tumblr has received a few of those gems lately) and, in that, the appendices, Talks to Students, especially the overly long but very very dear "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings," which says many of the same things Henry James does in the Preface to The Ambassadors, about finding the important thing in life, but in a more William-y way and, mostly, through extensive block quotations from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "The Lantern Bearers" (1888). 

I first read and loved that essay a quarter century ago while writing my dissertation on Woolf's essays. Reading it again, and finding it in this way that seemed at first so far from Woolf but ended up right back in a Woolfian vein, was a source of joy on a day when things otherwise felt a little flat. 

In fact, the sentence that James most admires, the one he holds out as "the best thing I know in all Stevenson" struck me as at once almost embarrassingly simple-minded and also deeply important and lovely. So, I made a little meme for you. Forgive the lack of naming either Maxfield Parrish or Robert Louis Stevenson, but, guys, it's a silly meme: 

Parrish & Stevenson



Books are Bridges?

Margaret Wise Brown did not like the 1946 theme for Children's book week:

if I were a child, and saw [on posters] ‘Books are Bridges’ I’d go out and make channels of diverted water from a stream through the sand and stretch the Books across the little streams for my imaginary armies to march across….If I were a child and read ‘Books are Bullets’ I and other children would throw them at each other. If I were a child and read ‘Books Around the World’ I would wish that I had gone myself—If I read ‘Friendship Through Books’ I would have wished the Book weren’t there between us. Therefore for next year I propose ‘Books are Books’ for the Book Week slogan. A fact any child would recognize with relief.” (qtd. Leonard Marcus, Awakened by the Moon, 199-200)

Royalties

If you're lucky enough to get money from your writing, what should you do with it? Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight, Moon, has, to me, the best answer ever. In 1935, she sold her first book, When the Wind Blew:

“When the check for her royalty advance came in the mail soon afterward, Margaret cashed it immediately. Horse-drawn flower carts were still a familiar sight in the Village; fresh from the bank, Margaret hailed a cart, told the vendor that she wanted to buy everything he had, and directed him to her front door, where the entire cartload was deposited. She decorated her apartment, then called her friends over for a party”

From Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus, 1992.

MY Saga

I have been pretty scrupulously avoiding Karl Ove Knaussgard’s epic for a while now. I have really been focused on reading and writing about women and have been trying to tamp down the proportion of navel-gazers in my life. Still, I just finished the first installment of his piece for the Times magazine and found it so funny and so familiar that I think I can, in fact, come to enjoy his particular brand of stoic Norwegian narcissism.

In any case, his incuriosity, his fear of strangers, did remind me of myself and made me want to tell you this story about my trip to Pennsylvania this week.

I had an amazing time. A colleague invited me to Widener University to give a lecture on editing Mrs. Dalloway to her students and the community at large. I went down in the morning by train. A hunky, flirty Jordanian squash coach made me listen to house music on his Samsung on the way. I had a sublime few hours at the Barnes Collection, got picked up and taken out to Chester, met people, talked, had dinner, got dropped off at the Best Western just across the street from campus.

It was 9:15.

I was exhausted but exhilarated. I had had some wine. I just wanted one quiet beer so I could calm my nerves and go to bed. I asked Siri. She recommended a pretty gross sounding bar. I looked out my window: a 7-11. Perfect.

No beer at the 7-11.

I talked to Siri again. The bar was .25 miles away. I walked a bit. I walked over the I-95 overpass into a very, very run-down neighborhood of early-20th century homes. It looked like the backside of any industrial East Coast town. I tucked my ropes of fake pearls under my black shirt.

The Village Grille is on a corner. One street runs parallel and above the interstate, the other one is a side road that runs parallel to the service road of motels and pizza chains that grow up around the highway. It’s in a shabby fake-Victorian house, covered in asbestos siding, but with a turret. The entrance is on the corner. I could see in the windows that the lights were bright.

I walked in. The music was deafening but, to me, unrecognizable. Everyone was black. In fact, black-ish was on the TV. The bartenders, a man and woman in their 50’s, were good-looking, slim, and efficient. He gave me an appraising look and asked for my order. “A Bud.” He grabbed a bottle and asked if that would be ok. I said it would and reached for my money. Fumbling. Two singles. A bunch of receipts. A raised eyebrow from the bartender. Then, victory. A ten.

I paid (the beer was $3.50) and drank my beer, watching black-ish, which looks terrific, and watching the people in the two rooms further back. A woman, my age, in a parka and a nursing tunic, dancing by herself. Some men in playing pool. Across from me at the horseshoe bar, a man, about 70, watching me and wanting me to know he had his eye on me.

My beer about done, a plump woman came in. I was sitting right next to the take-out spot and she stood for a while, waiting to get the barkeep’s attention. Then, she turned to me: “Do you have…?” I couldn’t hear, but she was holding out coins. I reached for a single. “Is this what you want?” “Yeah! Can you do another?” “Sure,” I giggled, “but my wallet’s gonna be so heavy!” “Aww…you’re sweet,” she said, and gave me a hug and a kiss and walked to the back room with her singles.

I snapped my wallet shut and looked up.

Across the bar the old man mouthed “Want another beer?”

“No thanks,” I mouthed back and left.

A very bad book

I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel with delight and meant to read more.

On my parents’s last visit to New York, my mom gave me her copy of Jacqueline Winspear’s latest, non-Maisie novel, a World War I book called The Care and Management of Lies. I expected it to be soapy and entertaining, something along the lines of Downton Abbey. I made few demands of it other than to entertain me.

I ended up feeling—and this is very rare for me—that this was a profoundly rotten and unethical book.

It centers around four characters, very young people caught up in the War:

  • Thea is a suffragette who toys with pacifism, but its danger scares her, so she volunteers to drive an ambulance.
  • Kezia is Thea’s best friend and the newlywed wife of Thea’s brother, Tom. She is pretty, and comes from a slightly better class of people than Thea and Tom.
  • Tom is a farmer who volunteers to fight a few weeks after most of his men join up.
  • Edmund is the brooding, Rochester type, the son and owner of the local estate that adjoins Tom’s farm. He writes poetry, for goodness sake, and is, reluctantly, Byronically, dashingly, an officer who is very good to his men.

Ugh! So how many clichés of the War can we squeeze into four young people? Thea’s description fairly groans with all sorts of things that happened to women who were not obedient wives. Maisie’s character is like that, too, but in genre fiction it’s sweet and interesting. On Downton Abbey, for goodness sake, characters are more rounded that that. In a novel, it just feels lazy and gross.

For all the care in the historical set-up, the novel is careless about the actual progress of the war. Months after the fighting starts, characters are weary of trench warfare (a weariness that was unlikely to have been general before mid-1916). Conversation in the trenches is full of stiff-upper lip, period slang, and clichéd enlisted man/embittered sergeant/noble officer nonsense that seems never to have heard of Blackadder (ok, that’s a recent discovery for me, too, but take a look.)

Most of the book is about how Kezia comforts her husband with letters detailing the meals she will cook for him. Even as rationing sets in, she pretends to be roasting rabbits and adding a little sage to the compound butter. Tom reads these letters aloud to his fellow soldiers and they help him “bear up,” as Winspear might say.

But the ending is the most disgusting of all. After many hints that Tom has married above him in marrying Kezia, Winspear kills off both Tom and his sister Thea, leaving the field open for the Byronic lord. Oh, spare me your fantasies of class mobility via cannon fodder. This is a kind of war nostalgia I hope never to encounter again.

A good bad book

The premise behind Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is high concept but appealing: the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Indochinese cook. There's a smart an elegant turn, too: by making him gay, Truong explores gay and lesbian life in 1920's Paris without having to work through a judgmental narrator. A good friend who reads a lot of wonderful contemporary literature raved about it and she and I have a lot of mutual friends, so I was excited to read it.

Much about it was so terrific and moving, but even I, Woolf scholar though I be, can only take so much dreamlike, plotless prose.

The premise is a good one. An Binh, after many years in Paris, receives a letter from his brother in Saigon. Their abusive father is dying; come home. The letter is salty: is it the salt of the sea? of tears? of cooking? There is a beautiful passage on types of salt and how they might help Binh figure out what he owes to a painful past.

But, while some of the stuff on Stein and Toklas is funny—about daily feasts of liver for the poodles—whenever Truong moves to make them into characters, the note is a little off: we always already know too much and too little about them, so while they work as background figures, they do not, and cannot, give the novel emotional weight. The real problem, however, is the back-story of his mother’s marriage as a child bride and the extramarital love affair that lead to his birth, the fourth and final son. The mother never emerges as a character with any interiority, but as the novel goes on, we spend more and more time in her story. Because we don’t know her mind, but we know all kinds of very intimate facts about here, something in the scale of the book is off. What a disappointment. 

Maggie Righetti, Knitting in Plain English

My reading lately has disappointed—more on that, perhaps, soon—so that’s part of the reason, perhaps, that the best book I’ve read these few weeks is the amazing Maggie Righetti’s Knitting in Plain English (2007).

I tried to knit a little as a teenager and then, last year, my daughter and I thought we might try it. We didn’t get much farther than buying some wool and when I went back, this year, to the stitches I’d cast on for a hat, they were much too tight to work with. I ripped them out and decided just to use that lovely purple and green variegated yarn to make a scarf.

That down, I went and bought more yarn and then I decided that quirky YouTube videos were not going to be quite enough. I’m just a bit too old and staid to find Stitch’n’Bitch amusing, so I bought this book.

She really is the Mark Bittman of knitting, teaching basics, principles, and methods, with a soupçon of Erma Bombeck or Nora Ephron. It’s a very funny and helpful book. More than once she writes “Once you accept that God gave you a brain and that She intended you to use it to make your life better, you can do almost anything.”

I have rarely read a book with such a terrific, funny, feminist voice. She describes, in goofy detail, the mistakes she made and the tearful outraged women who confront her at her yarn store with spoiled projects. She is frank about differences among our bodies—heavy arms, large busts, tiny waists—and how they demand that we alter patterns to suit the body we have. There are not many pictures at all, but what pictures there are show a range of races, ages, and body types. She is relentless and very funny about all the ways pretty, tall, slim, young models trick us into thinking we are admiring the sweater when we are simply admiring them.

There is a lot of prose, but there is also a catalogue of pretty stitches and a kind of syllabus of projects to work through to learn some basic principles with pleasure, most famously something she calls “The Dumb Baby Sweater”: “I don’t care what you do with these baby things when you have learned all you can from them. And I don’t pretend that they are things of beauty, but they are filled with learning experiences. What you do with the silly things after the learning is over is your business.”

Plus, from her I learned that the Kitchener stitch, a method of joining two knitted pieces together, was invented by Lord Kitchener himself.

You can read a little bit more about her here, and find some of her patterns at ravelry. Maybe this is all old news to you, but, not being a knitter (yet), she is a delightful discovery to me.