The Vaccine: Vampires No More!

Today I received my second dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell you how thankful I am. What a trying year this has been! We have washed our hands compulsively, worn the double mask, and tried to social-distance in a world where few have a sense of their bodies in space. The boost from the vaccine makes me feel psychologically stronger. Later, as I whooshed on my bike past a large group of people monopolizing the trail, I did not, for once, wave a cross or sprinkle Holy Water. Possibly that does not work with Covid carriers anyway. No, I hope everybody, especially that group, gets vaccinated. And, yes, I am still social-distancing, etc., ad nauseam.

If I had futuristic Covid grandchildren, raised on ventilators or masks and expert at the art of social-distancing, I would tell them the story of the vaccine. Once, when our world was overpopulated and polluted, a few manufacturers developed recipes for Covid-19 vaccines. But the vaccines were in short supply, brewed apparently in small pharmaceutical cauldrons, and only available in diminutive quantities. Governments vied for the vaccine, but the factories delivered slowly. And so in the first months of the vaccine, groups were prioritized: precedence was given to health workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents, people over 65, and people under 64 with special medical conditions. The biggest problem was getting an appointment at the government website, which is like scoring a tickets to a sold-out rock Bruce Springsteen concert. Fantastically the site opened at noon but the appointments seemed to be filled at 11:59. But persist, dear people. Eventually…

Vaccines have ended so many epidemics and pandemics. TB, polio, the flu, mumps, measles, smallpox …. There is no downside to the vaccines. The Hummel child would not have died in Little Women! Jo would not have died in Bleak House!

I have no Covid books to recommend, but here are two novels and a memoir about other epidemics and pandemics, polio, TB, and influenza. The book descriptions are taken from Goodreads and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve (one of my favorite writers). Just after her eleventh birthday, at the height of the frightening childhood polio epidemic, Susan Richards Shreve was sent as a patient to the sanitarium at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was a place famously founded by FDR, “a perfect setting in time and place and strangeness for a hospital of crippled children.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, this 1924 classic is also a meditation on societal disease. Iain Bamforth at Lapham’s Quarterly writes, “the scholar Hermann J. Weigand called it ‘the epic of disease.’ It is more accurate to say that the novel is the epic of a particular disease, tuberculosis, one which has accompanied humans at least since they started building and settling in cities. But it is also, in a broader sense, an epic of illness—an ambitious attempt to show how being ill was experienced at a particular time in a particular culture.”

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

Happy Thursday Reading!

The Thornfield Hall Literary Quiz: What Were We Thinking of?

Avid bloggers and blog readers are all a bit mad when it comes to reading . Some commit to one book at a time, like their pre-electronic ancestors, while others switch from volume to volume, like the restless ex-urban Booktubers planning the Month of Mrs. Gaskell as a distraction from lockdown claustrophobia.

Interrupted by e-mail ads for bookstores and hourly updates on news that raises my blood pressure, I often have two or three books going, as a kind of reaction to electronic disturbance. My concentration is not dead: I have a tendency to get obsessed with a single book. For years I have been haunted by Henry James’s masterpiece The Golden Bowl. The sentence rhythms are hypnotic, and the characters have climbed out of a hyperrealistic Kent Bellows painting. And then there’s my personal reaction: I hate seeing bitchy Charlotte betray her best friend Maggie by committing adultery with Maggie’s husband, Prince Amerigo–especially after Charlotte marries Maggie’s rich father. This foursome is obsessed with collecting art and antiques, and, we must admit, people as well. And it all gets rather incestuous. There is a kind of calculated salvation at the end–and that’s the best we can hope for in a Henry James novel.

BUT THE QUIZ WILL NOT BE ABOUT HENRY JAMES. Thank God, you will say. I have moved on to a novel that is much shorter, if equally brilliant in a completely different style, and involves travel. Since I am very fond of this author and this particular book, I have made a literary quiz to share my enthusiasm. Can you guess the author and the title of the book? You do want to put the Thornfield Hall Literary Prize on your résumé, don’t you?

Start by reading the following passage. It may give you some clue.

THE QUIZ ITSELF

Answer the questions to find clues to the identification of the writer and the title of the book I’m thinking of. Good luck!

  1. Liza Minnelli played the outrageous heroine of the popular musical film ______ based on a book by this twentieth-century English author ______.
  2. A gay man was the hero of another movie based on a novel by this author ______ .
  3. The author was an activist for (a) the suffrage movement, (b) gay rights, (c) Civil Rights, (d) the National Rifle Association
  4. This pre-war glam city ______ features in more than one of his/her books.
  5. There are four narrators, all named ____, in the novel I am thinking of. (It is one of his/her later novels.)
  6. The four narrators of this novel spend time in Bremen and Berlin, the Greek Islands, London, and California.
  7. What is the novel? It is referred to in 5 and 6. And who is the author?

THE WINNER IS: ?????

Jill Biden’s Coffee, What I’m Reading, & Guerilla Housework

On the morning of March 1, Jill Biden went to Brewer’s Cafe, a Black-owned business in Richmond, Virginia, and ordered a cup of drip coffee. I gravitate toward fun features rather than political news, and was thrilled to discover “common ground” with Dr. Biden.

Jill Biden at Brewer’s Cafe

Jill Biden is a new kind of First Lady, obviously brilliant, an instructor of English at a community college, and she has an Ed.D. from the University of Delaware. A boutique coffee habit turns her into one of the java people. She was working: she stopped for coffee on the way to speak on a panel at Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the article at The Washington Post, the stop at the cafe is a light preface to the larger issue of her visit to the Cancer Center. The reporter possibly overthinks it: “Maybe the first lady wanted to support small businesses. Maybe she wanted to signal to Black Americans that President Biden was serious when he said his administration would not abandon them. Maybe she just likes places that are touted as having some of the best French macarons and coffee in their respective towns. Her press office would not comment.”

I may be naive, but isn’t a good cup of coffee the perfect brain boost before work? You can want good coffee, and decide to support a small Black-owned business.

By the way, I read a few weeks ago that the book on Dr. Biden’s bedside table was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I do hope she’s allowed to read this without being told it’s a photo-op!

And so it goes…

WHAT AM I READING? I just read Henry James’s The Golden Bowl for the third time, and am scandalized by the evil Charlotte’s schemes to commit adultery with her friend Maggie’s husband, Amerigo, her former lover. To make it more Jamesily intricate, Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver, a wealthy collector of art and antiques. In the introduction to the Penguin, Gore Vidal finds wicked Charlotte more interesting than Maggie. But my guess is that many of us women find ourselves siding with Maggie. This is an intricate, beautifully-written page-turner. Europeans always marry rich Americans in James’s novels.

GUERILLA HOUSEWIFERY. At the best of times, I have a hard time with housewifery. Clearing the surfaces of tables is the extent of my daily housework. I do not vacuum and scrub the floors daily. Marie Kondo had no effect here. You will not find me folding the laundry: my method with sheets is to roll them up and sort them according to fitted and flat. If they get mixed up…! That’s our life-style

I am still recovering from the weekend a friend stayed and decided to clean my house. I feebly begged her to stop, because I was too exhausted to help. When I went into the kitchen to grab a glass of water, she lectured me on why I should never mix bleach with…something! That would not be a problem of course, because it would never occur to me to squirt more than one cleaning product on anything! Plus did I have two cleaning products?

The gift of guerrilla housecleaning–and I do believe it was meant to be a gift– became just another contest in the never-ending tournament of femininity–I lost when I wasn’t even in the round!

“Remember when X cleaned the house,” my husband sometimes says.

“Please don’t use that against me,” I say.

The guilt of inadequate housewifery never stops, and studies of housework make me cynical. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, most women say they spend 5.7 hours daily doing housework and looking after the family. This raised a red flag for me: What housework, I wondered, do they find to do for 5.7 hours?

In this last year of the pandemic, I have begun to have a glimmer of compassion for cleaning maniacs. The house seems dirtier now that my husband and i both work at home, and it is not the time to hire a maid. The kitchen has become a treacherous repository of what I call “attack groceries”: a six-pack of paper towels falls off the refrigerator onto my head, I sweep up 100 blueberries after a box of blueberries jumps off the edge of the counter, I find rings on the coffee table when SOMEONE I love fails to use a coaster. I swear so much I need to cover the cats’ ears.

I need to reorganize the kitchen. But first I have to get a good cup of coffee.

Writers Dining with Other Writers: Storm Jameson’s “The Road from the Monument”

Storm Jameson

Years ago, I wrote a local newsletter called A Few Green Leaves. The concept was simple: I selected an out-of-print writer, wrote a brief biography of him or her, and reviewed one or two of her books.

The subject for my first issue was the English writer Storm Jameson (1891- 1986). No one seems to read her anymore, but she is very good. She was born in in North Yorkshire, educated at University of Leeds and King’s College London, active in leftist politics, and wrote 45 novels and numerous reviews to make a living. Her style is seemingly effortless rather than elegant, her plots elaborate, her characters complex, her point-of-view unflinching, and her novels consistently workmanlike and fascinating.

I recently read Jameson’s forgotten 1962 novel, The Road from the Monument, a brilliant page-turner which is (or was) available as an e-book from Bloomsbury Reader. If you are curious about the gossip of bitchy writers, you will adore Jameson’s characters, some of whom struggle, others of whom do well, and still others are jealous of anyone who succeeds.

At the center is a successful writer, Gregory Mott, who is charming, handsome, talented, and very smug, as his bitter invalid wife has learned over the years. The son of an impoverished sea captain, he grew up in poverty. Now, in addition to being a critically-acclaimed writer, he is the director of the Rutley Institute of Arts, and has enormous prestige in the literary world.

Much of the book is told from the point-of-view of other writers, who have decidedly mixed feelings about Gregory, but we also hear from his friends and his wife.

The first chapter is told from the perspective of seventy-year-old Paul Gate, Gregory’s former teacher. Paul was the lowest-paid teacher at the school because he never passed the education exams. He thought so highly of Gregory that he paid the fees for Gregory’s university education. Paul went hungry and lived in a hovel so he could support the brilliant boy. And as the years go by, he is delighted to receive occasional letters from Gregory and read his books, and does not expect to see him.

Finally Paul receives a dinner invitation and will be reunited with his favorite pupil in London. But Paul is shocked by Gregory’s selfishness and what he deems as immorality: he jokes about religion. And he is devastated when Gregory carelessly asserts that he regrets not having gone to Oxford. He realizes Gregory was not who he’d thought he was. And later, Gregory carelessly tells a school friend that he was sure Paul had money or he wouldn’t have paid the tuition.

Most of the characters are writers, and Gregory’s most loyal friend, Lambert Corry, a failed novelist, is the deputy director at the Institute. Lambert is bitter because Gregory gets the credit for the work that Lambert does. He does not understand that Gregory is the idea man. Lambert’s wife lambastes Gregory at her dinner parties while at the same time promoting her latest, not always talented, young proteges. Lambert is pleased by her vituperation of the golden boy, though he always defends Gregory.

Harriet, Gregory’s former mistress, still loves him but knows his faults. One of them is vanity: she knows despairingly that he is better-looking than she, and that was one of the reasons he did not marry her. His wife, Beatrice, also had money. Harriet is a writer, but the critics don’t like her, and she has been grinding out mediocre books for decades to pay the bills. Now she is tired. And I can only imagine that many novelists feel like this when they must go on and on because they have no savings.

She reflected lucidly that she was paying now, in her fiftieth year, for not having made herself any allies. After all these years of hard and on the whole honest work, she was back exactly where she started as a very young woman, without security, without money, and with fast-diminishing energy —she was strong but she had used herself mercilessly hard. An unworldly fool. A freak who does not even amuse. She did not know how to talk to people, she could not make herself respected: no one, not the weakest or youngest, had any reason to fear her —and so no reason to help her.

Gregory finally makes an error that threatens everything he has. But I won’t give away the plot.

I realized while I was writing this that religion plays a big part in this book.

Id you want to read Jameson and can’t find The Road from the Monument, there are many used copies of her Mirror in Darkness trilogy, which consists of Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935), and None Turn Back (1936).

May I Have This Book, Please? & Literary Links

May I have this book, please?

I am speaking of Two Way Mirror by Fiona Sampson, the new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When I read a review today in The Guardian, I was very excited. Oh, my God, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I said ecstatically to my husband. Could we go to the bookstore and pick it up?

Unfortunately, we could not, because it will not be published here till August. This happens so often. Why can it not be published at the same time as the UK version?

Well, I can always reread Barrett Browning. I have a pink copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems, a little the worse for wear for being in the mudroom for ten years. I paid 40 cents for this at the Planned Parenthood book sale.

Of course we all read Robert Browning, but Elizabeth Barrett used to be overlooked. And yet readers everywhere know the opening line of her famous sonnet:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Time to beat the gloom of February by reading some of her poems.

AND NOW FOR LITERARY LINKS.

  1. Will Self is writing a series of essays on reading for Lit Hub. And I think you will be especially intrigued by the autobiographical bits in the first one, How Should We Read?

Raised by bookish but undisciplined parents, I always felt I had just about the best introduction to reading imaginable: my American mother’s modish novels and zeitgeisty works on psychology mingling on the shelves with my English father’s English canonical tastes and his motley collection of philosophical texts (many of which came from my autodidactic grandfather’s own extensive library). And there were plenty of other books as well—acquired by my brothers or me at second-hand stores and flea markets. Nobody was remotely precious about these volumes: they were there to be read not revered. And since my parents had also decreed—in order to inculcate us with their own bookish tendencies—that we could have no television, reading was pretty much all we had to do: there was no street life in leafy middle class English suburbia in the 1960s, unless you liked watching lawns grow.

2. This week, the TLS published a review of Dorothy Whipple’s Random Commentary, first published in 1966, ” an assortment of writings from note-books and journals,” and reissued by Persephone.

Are you a fan of Dorothy Whipple? Persephone has been reviving her novels for years. I have enjoyed some of them, though I am not a mad Whipple fan. I remember reading a more or less “Virago vs. Persephone” article (in the Guardian?), in which one of the Virago editors said they never crossed “the Whipple line.” Well, Whipple is middlebrow, but some of the Viragos are too.

Anyway, the reviewer says,

We first meet Whipple in the mid-1920s. After her first love was killed during the First World War, she marries her employer, Henry Whipple, the director of education for Blackburn. She also struggles to establish herself as a writer, failing to sell a short story for five years. Modesty regarding her writing abilities and gentle wit suffuse these diaries. Whipple repeatedly berates herself for not working hard enough. Procrastinating, staring out of the window, or poking the fire – anything but writing: “When I have time to work, I don’t want to. When I haven’t time, I want to”. Whipple begins new drafts before finishing previous versions. Working on one book, she always wants to be working on another; “shaping and polishing” is her favourite part of the writing process. When her first novel, Young Anne (1927), is accepted for publication, the relief is palpable: “I’m not lost any more”.

Have a great reading weekend, whether you choose Elizabeth Barrett Browing, Dorothy Whipple, or someone else entirely.

As a Science Fiction Geek…

The most important environmental novel.

As a science fiction geek, I ought to be able to predict the future. The lord knows, I have spent enough time in the company of Ray Bradbury, Ann Leckie, Clifford D. Simak, Frank Herbert, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Of course the writers never get it quite right, but metaphors can be close; the TV pundits and newspaper columnists are less reliable as they spout ever-changing opinions on a daily deadline. Nonetheless, despite my eclectic reading, I have a bad feeling about the future.

With so much of the world ill or in lockdown, we are often depressed. And at the present moment, I am dismayed by our ineffectual government’s wasting weeks trying to nail Trump for the assault on the U.S. Capitol. We were all terrified by the attack, though I’m not at all sure it was an attempted coup. Of course the plotters and the violent attackers should be brought to justice. But it is ironic that the House and Senate allowed Trump to threaten national security for four years by constantly firing people in important positions–that scared me as much as the assault on the Capitol! No, they dare go after him now that he is out of office, and because they personally felt threatened when the Capitol was attacked. They did not show the same degree of concern for mass shootings in churches and schools, or for police violence, or the many other terrors set loose on the population by maniacs. Was this really a coup d’tweet?

A great political and environmental novel.

I try to avoid reading about politics. I voted for the Dems because I want to see green energy implemented, the vaccines distributed quickly, strategies for dealing with pandemics and climate change, and the completion of the thousand and one other important things the government owes.

For the last year, we have looked to infectious disease specialists and other scientists who have tried to hold this country together. Some states and the federal government actively interfered (and still interfere) with mask mandates recommended by the CDC. What is to be done? Where is all the government brain power?

The Cumaean Sibyl, also probably has a Zh.D.

But with my Zh.D. in Vampire and Zombie Lit , I am relieved that it is at least not the zombie apocalypse. The movies 28 Days Later and 28 Months Later can be viewed as a terrifying metaphor for a pandemic. Of course in the zips of this century, good vampires were as fashionable as the bad zombies. In the Twilight books, which I binge-read on the recommendation of a fortysomething friend, the witty, klutzy heroine, Bella Swan, moves to the small town of Fork, Washington, to live with her policeman father, and is not impressed with the fog or the small-town culture. But Edward, the gorgeous perfect gentleman vampire, saves Bella’s life when a car almost rolls on top of her. The two fall in love: Edward is something of a human rights activist; he drinks animal blood instead of human blood. Bella’s best friends are vampires and werewolves, and it is only a matter of time before she will have to make a change. But there is a place for infectious disease specialists in their Twilight world: medical experts are called in!

Somehow we never expected the pandemic, or any of it. It’s all horrifying, but it could be very much worse . Some people are suffering horribly, some people are terrified, some view this era as an inconvenience–and I might try the latter for a while, if I can just wing it.

Spring is coming–then we’ll be more positive! At least we hope so.

So Near and Yet So Far: What Would You Do to Acquire a Favorite Writer’s Papers?

One of the highlights of a trip to London was staring at the manuscript of Jane Eyre at the British Museum. I could hardly see it in the dimly-lit glass case, but it was there. So near and yet so far. That was my first inkling of what scholars must feel when they get their (gloved) hands on a manuscript.

I was thinking of this the other day when I read Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a strange comical novella about a besotted scholar who will do anything to acquire the papers of Jeffrey Aspern, his favorite dead Romantic poet. The papers are reputed to be in the hands of the dead Aspern’s ancient mistress, Juliana, who has already refused the request of another scholar. So how can he get his hands on the papers?

The artful narrator daringly pretends an interest in Juliana’s garden so he can persuade her to rent him an apartment in her dilapidated Venetian villa. And Juliana’s niece, Tina, inadvertently becomes his collaborator: she innocently reveals that Juliana still has the papers in her bedroom. Let me just say that the narrator can’t resist searching for the papers even when Juliana is on her deathbed. Is such bad behavior rewarded? Read the book.

Barbara Pym is well-known for her charming novels about witty spinsters, indexers, librarians, and much-sought-after vicars. In her posthumously-published novel, An Academic Question, the narrator, Carol, is a bored faculty wife. Her husband thinks she should get a job, but she does not want to join the band of frowsy faculty wives who file things in the library to get out of the house. Instead, Caro volunteers at a nursing home, where she finds herself reading aloud to an elderly anthropologist who has not written up all his research. Her anthropologist husband and the chairman of his department want to get their hands on these papers. How far will they go?

In Doris Langley Moore’s hilarious novel, My Caravaggio Style, a bookseller and impecunious biographer decides to forge a manuscript of Byron’s alleged “lost” memoirs. He plans to “find” themanuscript in his aunt’s attic so he can sell it to an irritating American collector. Let us just say that things get out of hand.

Doris Lessing is one of my favorite writers, but let me be clear: I have no desire to go through her papers. Let the biographers go through her papers! When she announced she would not publish a third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people who were still alive, I respected that decision. But, ironically, Lessing was barely in the ground before Jenny Diski, an excellent writer who sometimes went too far, published her memoirs of Lessing, who took her in when she was a homeless teenager. I was appalled by Diski’s hatred of Lessing.

Anyway, I eagerly await a biography of Lessing. Shouldn’t one be coming out soon?

Becoming Miss Bates: How Old Is She Anyway?

Nothing has happened for a year, so we now chat on the phone about fictional characters. And somehow we are on to minor characters in Jane Austen.

I have never identified with Miss Bates, the babbling spinster in Jane Austen’s superb Emma. In fact, nobody relates to Miss Bates.

“I talk a lot about personal stuff, but not THAT much,” I said to my good friend Janet on a landline. We are on landline phones because if we did Zoom or a video chat, we’d (a) have to clean the house and arrange the bookshelves, and (b) groom our post-apocalyptic hair, which at this point resembles the hairdo of the neighbor’s sheltie.

“I feel sorry for Miss Bates, but we’re too young to be her,”Janet said. “Emma is the one we’d hang out with.”

“We’ll never be older than Emma.”

And that did make us giggle, because we’ve identified with Emma for so long the relationship begins to feel rather vampiric.

“Emma is always 21, and we are forever thirty-nine,” Janet said.

“That’s true.”

Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates

But how old is Miss Bates? The first time I had an inkling that Miss Bates might be youngish was when Tamsin Grieg played her in the 2009 Masterpiece series of Emma. Grieg, 42 then, looked to be in her thirties, and interpreted Miss Bates less as a caricature than her predecessors did. I liked her interpretation of plain Miss Bates: she is rather sweet, not too bright, wears unbecoming caps and bonnets, and her prattle comes across as a gentle literary Tourette’s. All of the dramatic interpretations of Miss Bates seem very good to me, but Miss Bates seems different here, because she is younger.

Prunella Scales as Miss Bates (1996 TV movie)

I am perhaps fondest of the 1996 TV movie (starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma). The wonderful character actress Prunella Scales was 64 when she played Miss Bates, but had the forty- or fiftysomething energy that expresses my idea of Miss Bates. I’ve always thought Miss Bates should be middle-aged.

Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates (movie 1996)

In the 1996 theatrical movie of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Sophie Thompson played Miss Bates. This ebullient actress, then 32, hides behind goggly glasses, plain dresses, and bonnets. I saw this film so long ago that I do not remember Thompson’s performance, but she looks as though she is throwing herself into the part. Is this the scene where Emma mocks her?

It would be easier for us to become Miss Bates. if we knew her age. On the surface, I am completely unlike her: I don’t brag about my nieces, and I am married. But we have all had a Miss Bates moment: we misspeak, accidentally wear a sweater backwards, knock over a pile of books at a bookstore, and someone is there to mock. It is so much easier to be handsome, clever, rich Emma than poor, babbling, dull Miss Bates.

As far as I know, Jane does not reveal Miss Bates’s age. Any guesses?

Are Pink Books for Women? “Girl, Serpent, Thorn,” “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and “Siri, Who Am I?”

I am fond of books with pink covers, possibly because of a weird post-feminist nostalgia: pink used to be for girls, and blue for boys, until Second Wave feminists smashed the stereotype and we switched to more subdued colors–including blue.

A pink Jane Austen

You wouldn’t know my fondness for the rose hue by my book collection: there are few books on my shelves with pink covers. My theory is that pink books are meant to be fluffy and flirty, aimed at women. You might find a pink copy of a Jane Austen novel, but you will not find a pink Emily Bronte (she was too tough), a pink James Joyce, or a pink Shirley Jackson. Most of my books are paperback classics with details of famous paintings on the cover.

And so is it any surprise that I go gaga over pink books or books with pink cover art?

Let me start with Melissa Bashardoust’s brilliant fantasy novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, which was magically irresistible because of the pink wallpaper effect of the cover art. A design of pink roses is entwined with serpents on a creamy pale poison-green background.”Sometimes the princess is the monster,” it says beneath the title.

I was utterly spellbound by this retold fairy tale. Billed on the cover as a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” it is closer to the Persian stories which the author cites in the Notes. She was influenced by the Persian epic, the Shahnameh, and Persian folktales. She explains the Persian cosmology, with detailed background on the divs (gods) and pariks (female demons).

The heroine of this graceful novel is Soraya, a member of the royal family, and the sister of the Shah. As the result of a curse by the Shahmar, who is the most powerful div (god), poison runs in her veins and she kills whoever she touches. She lives alone in a luxurious apartment and has a beautiful garden. But she is lonely and not a little angry that she is isolated from her family. And before her brother marries her former best friend, she wishes she could experience love, too A handsome young soldier spots her from a roof and says he has been in love with her since he heard her story. It seems that he might solve all her problems. Alas.

Soraya must concentrate on knowing herself and coming to terms with her unfeminine violent power, and finding a way to undo the curse, with the help of a parik (a female demon).

Bashardoust’s style is delicate, intelligent, and empathetic. The genre is officially Y.A. fantasy, but I can’t imagine what Y.A. means here. The style is much better than that of the average fantasy, and the characters are adults, not teenagers… Perhaps Y.A. pays better than fantasy. I have read that most of the buyers of Y.A. books are adult women.

A book I read for the pink cover, but it goes well beyond the implications! A fun, fastd, well-plotted novel, teeming with intrigue and action.

Is it cheating to call Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts a pink book? I found a picture of a pink Canadian edition, so I say, Cheat away! West’s bitter 1933 novella is a mournful tour de force, fraught with Christian imagery and despair. I had remembered this as a light book. but on this rereading I cannot imagine that I ever found it so.

In West’s masterpiece, he portrays an American society that has disintegrated to the point of no return during the Depression. The unnamed protagonist, a male reporter who writes the Miss Lonelyhearts column for a newspaper, can scarcely bear to read the letters of the desperate, semi-literate people who ask for advice. The letters topple Miss Lonelyhearts from his ironic perch and he ceases to think the job is funny. He knows there are no alternatives to the letter writers’ hopeless financial and personal problems.The only thing that can save them, he thinks, is Christ. And his sadistic editor, Shrike, mocks him and torments him about his depression and incipient Christianity.

West’s style is spare, stabbingly frank, and peculiarly American. He skewers journalism, cynicism, sex, religion, and even the depression of Miss Lonelyhearts.

He stopped reading. Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business. Besides, Christ was Shrike’s particular joke. “Soul of Miss L, glorify me. Body of Miss L, save me. Blood of…” He turned to his typewriter.

A brilliant, cynical, oddball novella about the failure of American myths in a crumbling society. The last sentence will haunt you.

Siri, Who Am I? by Sam Tshida, is the pinkest book of all, though the cover may be closer to peach. So this is what happened to chick lit, I thought when I saw it on a boutique-y bookstore table.

It is a fast, funny read, in a way, though I didn’t bother to finish it. Mia wakes up from a coma and does not remember anything–she makes some wild guesses from her phone and the Instagram account.

Ultimately, this is a romance. Naturally there are two men in her life. Which one will she choose?

I figured it out on page 68.

But that doesn’t mean that some of you won’t enjoy this.

Two Fabulous Reads: Minae Mizumuro’s “An I-Novel” and Elly Griffiths’s “The Postscript Murders”

It is colder than Anchorage and Moscow. I thought I would while away the freezing days by reading review copies. I’ll do one a day, I told myself. After all, the English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson used to receive a box of books in the morning and have her reviews finished by the end of the day. The character Walter Bidlake, a literary journalist in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, did the same thing.

Well, I can’t keep up with Pamela and Walter, but at least I can condense two reviews in a single post. This week I am recommending An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura and The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffith.

I became a fan of Minae Mizumura when I discovered A True Novel, her haunting Japanese version of Wuthering Heights. I also admired and enjoyed this beautiful new translation of An I-Novel, a layered, pitch-perfect novel about a Japanese woman who feels out of time and place. Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator, tells us that in Japan this autobiographical novel was called the “first bilingual novel”: it was written in Japanese and English to reflect Minae’s experience in Japan and the U.S.. Naturally, the translation of this lovely bildungsroman is in English for our sakes.

The characterization is deftly developed as the reader is taken back and forth in time in America and Japan. The heroine, Minae, is a sad, anxious woman at an Ivy League school who has longed for 20 years to return from the U.S. to Japan. At the age of 30, she is still a graduate student in French literature, hiding out in a cockroach-infested apartment, doing no work, realizing that she is almost past her expiration date in the world of Ph.D.’s

Minae’s only personal contact is with her older sister, Nanae, a sculptor who lives with two cats in New York. Nanae calls her long-distance almost every day. Nanae is barely getting by: she has broken up with her boyfriend, and she and Minae are are failures by their parents’ standards, both single women who can barely support themselves.

I love the sisters’ conversations about their mother’s insistence that they must marry. It never occurred to them that they would have to work.

Having grown up without any notion that we needed to work, this perfectly ordinary fact had not occurred to either of us until recently. But it had probably never occurred to Mother either as she brought us up. She worked because she wanted to, not because she had to.

A lovely book that we can all relate to, even though we come from different cultures. And now on to something different…

Elly Griffiths’s The Postscript Murders is a delightful cozy mystery. Set in Shoreham-by-Sea, it begins with an unlikely murder. Ninety-year-old Peggy Smith is popular with the other residents in her senior apartment house, loves Golden Age mysteries, and is known as a Murder Consultant (she helps writers with their murder plots). When a carer, Natalka, discovers Peggy’s dead body, she has a hunch something is wrong and suspects murder. She confides in DS Harbinder Kaur at the police station. And when a gunman shows up at the apartment after the funeral and runs away with one of Peggy’s out-of-print books, Harbinder believes Natalka’s theory.

I love the group of characters: The beautiful Natalka, originally from the Ukraine, has a wild imagination; Benedict is a former monk who runs a coffee business on the beach; and Edwin is an elderly gay man who watches Murder, She Wrote. These three bond together to investigate the crime, and end up at a literary festival in Scotland. Harbinder is on their side, trying to keep them from getting killed. But even nursing home residents talk in anagrams: Does “red rum” really mean murder?

An unputdownable brilliantly-plotted read!