“Banned and Damned”:  What Shall I Call My Little Free Library?

By now we are all familiar with Little Free Libraries, those adorable wooden boxes in people’s yards that look like birdhouses and are stocked with books.   There are 10 Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. When the movement started, I was thrilled.

“I can’t wait to see what people are reading,” I said excitedly. The LFL book-sharing philosophy is summed up by the sign, TAKE A BOOK, GIVE A BOOK. 

But the Little Free Libraries have disappointed.  Often the books are thrown in higgledy-piggledy, and the spines are cocked and the pages foxed by the time you find them. The windows of two LFL boxes in the neighborhood are broken, so the winds gust in and do not improve conditions. 

We have optimistically donated some classics and literary fiction,  yet they languish there for months. The Man without Qualities was a hard sell, so eventually we took it back.  Giggling, I once threatened to drop off The Tale of Genji (1200-some pages). The typical fare is Richard Patterson, Danielle Steel, vampire books, romances, and Georgette Heyer.  Once I fell under the spell of some excellent literary bloggers, and took home Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, because she was said to be a charming, witty writer of Regency romances, and compared to Jane Austen.  This turned out to be false advertising.  I dutifully returned Devil’s Cub.   It is still there.

Today as I looked in dismay at the crumpled copies of John Connelly, John Grisham, and old Sue Grafton mysteries, I had a brainstorm.  I will start a “themed” Little Free Library.  I might call it Banned and Damned!  But then the scary right-wing moms might descend upon me,  even if I have a For Adults Only sign, or the City Council, due to complaints, or perhaps the ultra-conservative governor.  The right-wing legislators in my state propose legislation for banning books.  But I have to believe the banners are not great readers, and at random want to ban books they have heard of, but not read. Perhaps we should sign them up for an English class.

Since my husband won’t even let me put a peace sign in the yard, I doubt that Banned and Damned will fly.  How about Books That Make You Think? Or Classics & Controversy

Although I could not possibly stock Lady Chatterley’s Lover – it is no longer banned, but I cannot say it would fly in this political climate – I would fill my shelves with Faulkner, whom the right-wingers have not yet discovered, and perhaps Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, both banned, but less explicit than Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

How about Thoreau? He is still controversial in the 21st century. I thought everybody would want to live the simple life by Walden Pond, but two conservative, affluent friends of mine had a fit when I mentioned his name. I will include the other Transcendentalists, too because they are such great writers. Concord, Massachusetts, was the center of 19th-century radical American thought!

We will also add the Beats, the feminists, science fiction, and poetry.

More suggestion for an LFL name and thought-provoking books are welcome.

Summer Reading: Henry James & Maud Cairnes

It was a gorgeous June day. We take these days when we can get them.  We didn’t exert ourselves, except to make sandwiches in the kitchen, because it was 90 degrees, and all anybody wants is to sit under a tree and indulge in light reading. I almost said “sit in a tree,” but I must admit those days are gone.  Not gone, however, are days when we lounge under a tree and sigh over Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.

On a recent rereading of The Wings of the Dove, I loved it as much as I did in my twenties.  Back then, I always had a classic going at night, and James, though considered soporific by cynics, seemed to me surprisingly stimulating.  I was absorbed by his magnificent characters, especially the innocent Americans, among them Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), tricked into marriage by an impecunious Italian prince, and Milly Theale (The Wings of the Dove), a charming, rich, terminally ill young American woman who attracts fortune hunters.

Milly hides her illness even from her companion, Mrs. Stringham, her chaperone in their European travels.  But Milly is manipulated by her clever English friend Kate Croy into confessing she is ill, and then isthrown together with Merton Densher, an English journalist with no prospects. And Milly likes him very much.

To complicate things further, Densher is Kate’s secret fiancé: her rich Aunt Maud will cut her off if she marries a poor man, though Densher would like to marry her on his own income.  Kate’s  scheme is to get her hands on Milly’s money by making her fall in love with Densher.  Densher doesn’t take this too seriously, and  is desperate to spend time with Kate, who becomes colder as the book goes on. Kate’s  hopes for Densher and Milly are  obscene. This is not quite James noir, but in a way it is a novel about a psychological murder.

I’m fascinated by Kate, because in the first section of the novel, she is a kind, ethical woman who offered to stay with her impecunious father and share with him her 100 pounds legacy a year from her mother, while giving the other two hundred to her sister, a poor widow with children. He declined to live with her in poverty and sent her to Aunt Maud, with the hope that she would pass him the odd bit of change (though Maud has forbidden her to see her father). And she is very much in love with Densher at that point.

In a way, Kate’s ruthlessness is the end of Kate. The prospect of money ruins her. And yet I’m not sure James pulls off the transition from Kate the Good into Kate the Cold. She didn’t care about money when she offered to sacrifice herself to her father.

The other novel I’ve read under a tree, or shall I pretend IN a tree, is Maud Cairnes’s Strange Journey, a book in the British Library Women’s Series.  In this charming, comical, very smart little book, Cairnes draws an unforgettable portrait of two women, Polly Wilkinson, the narrator and a housewife, and Lady Elizabeth, who has everything that money can buy and yet has been unhappy since her miscarriage and her husband’s affairs.  Suddenly Polly and Lady Elizabeth  swap bodies, and  have no idea who they are supposed to be.   Have they gone mad?.

How would you feel if you suddenly were translated to another person’s body?  Not only another person, but someone you’d never met and didn’t know?   Suddenly Polly is expected to ride horses, hunt, and exchange witty repartee with sophisticated upper-class folk. And Lady Elizabeth finds herself living in a middle-class home on a budget, responsible for two children and a hard-working husband. 

Later, the two women find out how they became aware of each other. Polly wistfully observed Elizabeth oe night in a Rolls Royce.  She longed to climb in, lean against a soft cushion, and be driven to a pleasant home where everything would be done for her.

And when they try to reconstruct what happened,  Elizabeth also remembers seeing Polly and envying her access to a simpler life. 

Oddly enough, each learns by body-swapping to cope better with her problems by learning the other’s skills.

A charming, lively, light novel which I will read again!

Left out in the Rain!

It was a beautiful, hot June day.  I lounged in a lawn chair, lost in Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, the first of a duology.  The characters in this spare, realistic novel are linked, however remotely, to the Hotel Caiette, an isolated glass luxury hotel on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.  It is the property of Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy man who ruins thousands of lives with a Ponzi scheme.  There is a large cast of characters, among them two characters fascinated by the shipping industry: Leon,  a shipping executive who meets Jonathan at the hotel and becomes one of his investors;  and a young woman, Vincent, a former bartender at the hotel who follows Jonathan to Manhattan and poses as his trophy wife.  After Jonathan is arrested, she becomes  a cook on a ship, where she makes videos of the ocean and finds peace.

 The odd thing about the duology is that the two books are of different genres. Sea of Tranquility is a haunting literary science fiction novel. It is the better of the two  books, a genre-bending masterpiece.  But you don’t have to read them in order to understand them.  I read the second book first.  

Set partly on Earth and partly on a moon colony, Sea of Tranquility follows a group of characters who inhabit three distinct timelines: the early 20th century, the 21st century (2020 to 2023), and the twenty-third century.  

 There is a moment that changes everything, when a time traveler from the twenty-third century breaks the rules and warns a novelist on a  book tour about the outbreak of a pandemic. He tells her to go home to her family on the moon and that changes history.,\  Ironically, her novel is about a pandemic. (By the way, Mandel is best-known for her dystopian pandemic novel, Station Eleven, which was made into an excellent HBO series.

There are two sections in the book titled “The Last Book Tour on Earth.”  Mandel’s description of the writer’s exhaustion from travel and talking, from signing books and going home to identical rooms in Marriotts in different cities, was so vivid that I decided not to go to her reading.  I could picture how exhausted she would be, even if she  did her best to be vivacious. 

But as I said, I was reading The Glass Hotel the other day. After I finished, I started reading a tattered used paperback copy of T. C. Boyle’s The Terranauts. Then my husband came home, we went inside, we got immersed in conversation,  and I left both books outside. 

And it rained last night!  I left the books out in the rain.

So excuse me for not writing about Boyle’s novel. Both books are soaking wet, and are now in the recycle bin! (I do have one other Boyle novel, so I will substitute it for The Terranauts , eventually.)

Checklist for Reading Outdoors

You must prepare for the outdoor reading experience.  There are bugs, rabbits, and deer out there.  You’re not planning a trip to the woods but there might be wild animals in the backyard.   

And so I  had a checklist, but was distracted by my friend Elsa’s bragging about her sun sensitivity.

“I always wear a hat,” she said.  “I take an umbrella, too.  I’m just so fair.  I get burned walking from the house to the corner.”

We were in a serious blond-on-blond contest.  “Me, too.  I got a ghastly sunburn in Acapulco.”  Where did that come from?  I may have flown over Acapulco.  I did faint once in the Mexico City subway, though.  

“Acapulco is so touristy, don’t you think?”

“I love it there,” I said. Hm, was it a resort town? But I’m out of my mind when I   get competitive. 

“We spent our honeymoon on a marvelous beach in Portugal.”

“Lovely!”  I ended the blond-on-blond contest, because I’m no longer blond and Niagara Falls isn’t quite as romantic as Portugal. 

I got my worst sunburn in my hometown.

I looked at my checklist before we left.

  •   Straw hat from Cape Cod, bought in a bridal shop, because it was the only straw hat left in Provincetown.  Check.
  •  Regular sunblock,  sunblock for extra-sensitive skin,  then a backup sunscreen in case the regular brand smells too much like coconut.  Check.
  •   Bug spray.  Check.
  •   Long-sleeved blue workshirt to don if the bugs are biting. Check.
  • A thermos of coffee and a bottle of Gatorade. For me.   Water for Elsa, secretly from tap, because we don’t buy water at the store.  Check.
  •   Book bag full of:  John Gardner’s Grendel, aMargaret Millar omnibus, and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (reread).  Check.

Our readathon went very well.  Sometimes it’s nice to sit in lawn chairs and read beside a fellow bookworm.

She Only Reads Novels!

Buy the old James Bonds before the revised, sanitized editions hit the shelves.

“Oh, she only reads novels!” said a phlebotomist who used to belong to book group. As I entered the conference room, she was gossiping about moi, and claimed that my fondness for novels was a character flaw.  

Then she made my kind friend Janet cry. When Janet recommended Joy Harjo’s latest collection of poetry, the phlebotomist gave her a sharp tongue-lashing.   Fiction may be dangerous, but poetry apparently is too-too!  The rest of us thanked Janet and decided to read Harjo.
One of us suggested that the phlebotomist was actually a  “racist vampire.” That made me laugh, but to give credit where it’s due, I doubt that the “vampire” knew that Joy Harjo was a former Poet Laureate, or that she was a Native American. In fact, I am sure she knew nothing about her!

The prejudice against novels and poetry is prevalent in our society – something to fight against in our new age of book-banning and “revision.” Good old Dad once called me “a non-participant in life” and punished me for reading on a weekend by making me mow the lawn.  All the neighbors saw me sobbing and mowing, so he rescinded his order – for his image. I raced inside, slammed the door of my room,  and returned to my book – possibly J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Thank God my mother and grandmother encouraged reading!  Is there anything more glorious than discovering Dickens? The  richness of language, his gorgeous use of anaphora and hyperbole, eccentric characters, wit, and brilliant storytelling?  I was also enamored of  the Brontes, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Influenced by Gothic novels and the Romantic poets, the Brontes wrote vigorously, lyrically, and  suspensefully about impoverished, independent heroines, dark, brooding anti-heroes, and forbidden love – not without wit!

Reading novels can be serious or fun, or serious and fun, but it is not an uncritical activity.  We do not consider Georgette Heyer the equal of Jane Austen, which is not to say that Heyer doesn’t  have her merits. (But I simply cannot read Heyer!)  And then there are Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt, both great writers, two quarreling sisters – do we have to choose one?  Or can we read both? 

Some psychologists and psychiatrists use fiction in their classes.  The late Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, considered in his book,  The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Imagination, the role of novels in students’ lives.  Over the years he taught fiction in elementary schools, high schools, universities, law schools, and medical schools.  The texts he used included Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tillie Olsen, Charles Dickens, and William Carlos Williams.

 He learned from students that novels expanded their world view and changed their perspective on class and racial differences.  He interviewed a  rich white student who identified with Toni Morrison’s Sula, and a poor Black student who identified with Portia, an orphan in  Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart who is  very much in the way of her older half-brother and his sophisticated wife.  

When someone belittles reading novels – or attempts to ban a book – I think of banned 19th-century Russian novels, Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the long, long history of censorship. Now editors at publishing companies are “revising” (censoring) Ian Fleming’s  James Bond books to expurgate the language and attitudes of the past and brighten things up.. I dread the prospect of a sanitized James Bond. 

With this high level of book-banning and censorship, how long before the Library of Alexandria burns – again?

What to Read on Memorial Day Weekend: T. C. Boyle’s “Talk to Me”

The smoke from Alberta wafted over the midwest, and now we’re breathing backyard barbecue again. As for reading on Memorial Day weekdend, so far I have inhaled T. C. Boyle’s Talk to Me in a day.

It is a novel about animal rights.  It begins when Aimee Villard, a student who has trouble communicating , watches an episode of a  game show, “To Tell the Truth.” The celebrity judges must decide which of three contestants is the real Professor Guy Schermerhorn, an animal behaviorist who has trained Sam, a young chimp, to speak in sign language.  

Aimee recognizes Guy immediately by his professorial manner and intelligence:  she also thinks she has seen him around, because her university in California is doing this research. And she is charmed when she sees the chimp Sam, in a polo shirt and diapers, run across the stage and jump into Guy’s arms.

Aimee gets a job working at the lab – actually a very nice house – and immediately becomes Sam’s favorite person. She has a mother-son  relationship with Sam:  they play hide and seek when he signs, PLAY ME HIDE SEEK; she names the objects in magazine pictures and Sam signs the words; and she even sleeps with Sam at night, because he has separation anxiety.  When a news reporter asks Sam what his favorite thing is, first he signs PIZZA, then he changes his mind and signs AIMEE.

Boyle’s writing is taut and  intelligent, and he sketches the believable inter-species family dynamics.   Guy and Aimee become lovers, mainly because they are always together, and they share a common interest, Sam.  Guy is the distracted father, worrying about money, marketing, and publishing his research, while Aimee is Sam’s loving mother, improving Sam’s life with her care and unwavering attention. 

Naturally, any idyll has its drawbacks. Sam is very much like human beings, but he has the potential to be violent, simply because he is so strong.  On Aimee’s first day, Sam has bitten one of the assistants on the cheek:  the woman will have to have surgery, and there is talk of lawsuits. (Sam signs, SORRY, but it is not enough.) 

Everything calms down with Aimee at the house – she takes over the role of Guy’s ex-, Melanie, who used to be Sam’s main caregiver. But then there is a tragedy, due to the greed and calculation of the cold, money-obsessed researcher who owns Sam and has let Guy “borrow” him..

Boyle captures the angst of the separation of Aimee and Sam when Moncrief, a one-eyed professor in Davenport, Iowa, says that the grant money is running out and he must take Sam back to Iowa, where  he may sell all his chimps to medical researchers. Like any adoring mother, Aimee is heartbroken.  She follows Sam to Iowa, where he and other chimps are tortured and never leave their cages.  Aimee eventually frees him, and she and Sam go on the lam. 

But it isn’t as easy for Aimee and Sam as it was for Bonnie and Clyde, she realizes wryly.  Can an animal rights activist – really a mother – save her chimp son?

Talk to Me is brilliant, fascinating, and heartbreaking.  A great read!

In Which Someone Hosts a Right-Wing Rally

No one was as surprised as I was when our blue state went red in 2016.

The Republicans have since cut Planned Parenthood funds ( five Planned Parenthood clinics have closed), proposed legislation to prosecute librarians and possibly send them to prison for supplying “banned” books, and have slashed funds for state universities and private colleges.

Here is a typical day in an indignant Democrat’s life.

May 23, 2023. Right-wing rally in the neighborhood! Flags on curb AND flag flying on pole above door of building!

SUVs, pick-up trucks, and Hummers line the street and usurp all the parking spaces.

7:30 p.m. …The cameras have arrived! (“Get off our lawn, please!” )

A sound system gently blares. Speeches very dull. Soon they will purloin a song by The Pretenders or Bruce Springsteen and try to make it their own.

Had we known earlier, we would have supplied ourselves with signs: “REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS,” “WE READ BANNED BOOKS,” and “STOP CLIMATE CHANGE.”

Note: Must now blast rebellious rock music in response to their red-state frenzy. We recommend John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”

Be sure to bring your boombox !

A Betsy-Tacy Addendum: I Was Wrong about the Hookah!

In my post on Maud Hart Lovelace’s autobiographical Betsy-Tacy books, I made an error about a hookah. During our long-ago trip to Mankato (Lovelace’s hometown), a  Betsty-Tacy fan insisted that a Syrian immigrant smoked hashish in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.

I wrote, “May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word ‘hookah. He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?”

This morning I checked the chapter called “Little Syria” in my copy of Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Hill.  And there is a hookah!

O Di Immoratales! Why I Want to Move to Mankato

I would love to move to Mankato, Minnesota, the hometown of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the autobiographical Betsy-Tacy series.  It is a lovely, small university town – but not too small – known as Deep Valley in Lovelace’s charming novels. The downtown has changed over the years – most of the stores are now vacant, and there is no sign of Betsy’s father’s shoestore- but Betsy/Maud’s house and her friend Tacy’s have been restored as museums by the Betsy-Tacy Society

I am a fan of the Betsy-Tacy books, as are several celebrities, among them Anna Quindlen, Laura Lippmann, and Bette Midler.  Lovelace’s ten-book series is a women’s bildungsroman, and Lovelace a midwestern Louisa May Alcott. 

Set in the early twentieth century, the Betsy-Tacy series follows the lives and adventures of two best friends, Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.  The first novel, Betsy-Tacy,  describes the meeting of Betsy and Tacy in kindergarten, and in the subsequent books Lovelace takes us downtown, over the Big HIll, and t all the way up to high school grduation, Betsy’s trip abroad, and Betsy’s wedding. 

Readers are especially fond of Betsy, the real heroine; Tacy is a quiet, smart Catholic girl, relegated to the role of sidekick.   Betsy has a vivid imagination and lots of plans: she is also an aspiring writer who writes stories and verse at a desk that was formerly her Uncle Keith’s trunk.  (Uncle Keith is an actor).  Her mother fosters creativity: Betsy’s  older sister, Julia, wants to be an opera singer.   

The family has always praised Betsy’s writing, but a high school a teacher  criticizes her work unkindly.  Betsy’s mother and two sisters are indignant, but Mr. Ray is equable: “It wouldn’t do Betsy any harm to learn about commas.”  This spurs more indignation: Mrs. Ray points out that no one worried about Shakespeare’s commas, and Julia suggests that Betsy may be the next Shakespeare!  How wonderful to have such a supportive family.  

In high school, there is much singing around the Rays’ piano, making fudge, and ice-skating, or, in Betsy’s case, shivering by the pond drinking cocoa and making excuses not to skate: she has weak ankles and is unathletic. (I related to this.)

I had not remembered that Betsy took Latin, but she and her friends treat it as an amusing secret language.  They often exclaim mysteriously, “O di immortales!”  (“O immortal gods!”)  The sophomores, Carney and Bonnie, like to quote the opening sentence of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (“All Gaul is divided into three parts”), while Betsy, a freshman, can only conjugate the verb amare (to love).  The  girls spend so much time giggling over Latin that Carney’s boyfriend Larry calls them a triumvirate.

“Girls, we’re a Triumvirate,” cried Carney, dimpling.  “I want to be Caesar.  He’s so cute in the pictures.  You can be Crassus, Bonnie, and Betsy, you can be Pompey.”  

This sounds like the kind of absurd thing my friends and I used to laugh over! Were we influenced by Betsy and Tacy?

Years ago my husband and I biked on the Sakatah State Trail, a 39-mile trail which starts (or ends, depending on your point-of-view) in Mankato.  There were no Betsy-Tacy museums then, but we found a self-guided Betsy-Tacy tour brochure.  We walked past Betsy’s house and Tacy’s house – you could look at the exterior but could not go inside back then – and looked at a few other landmarks. Then we rested  on the Betsy-Tacy bench on the Big Hill.  (The third book is called Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.)  While we were swigging from our water bottles, a barefoot stranger meandered across the street and offered to take our picture.  She was genial and gabby: she  animatedly insisted  that in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill,  an elderly immigrant in Little Syria is  smoking hashish in a hookah.  

May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word “hookah.” He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?

Such are the problems of post-modern Betsy-Tacy criticism. 

The Makeover: Cancel That Appointment!

“Oh, no.  No, no, no, no!” I stared at the mirror.  I wasn’t crying – yet.  But if there’s one thing I knew, it was that I had to cancel my doctor’s appointment.  If she saw me looking like this, God knows what medication she would prescribe.  I could only hope for tranquilizers.

You know, looks have never mattered to me. The trick to aging gracefully is not to look in the mirror.  I love my bathroom mirror – the light is very mellow in there – and though I look a bit older, the wrinkles seem to stay in the shadows.  

And then I made a mistake.  I looked in a full-length mirror in a bright light.  I screamed, “THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT!”

I changed my clothes several times, but it didn’t do anything for me. Would I look more acceptable in a black dress that has been on the floor of my closet since 2000?  How about black pants and a simple blouse – my funeral wear? No, it looked too funereal.  I settled on jeans and a t-shirt – a lifelong favorite.

There was nothing to do about my face.  I have a magic dermatological cream, which sort of fills in the lines, but turns my face red.  It depends on my level of desperation whether I use it or not.  It’s a night-time thing:  I don’t think an hour would do anything.

 How about makeup?  I never wear makeup.   The  one time I submitted to a makeover, the cosmetician and i were equally horrified.

“Just wear eyeliner,” she said brightly.

“Can’t be done.  It hurts my eyes,” And it gives me conjunctivitis!

Then there’s my hair.  Would dyeing it make me look younger?  Could I possibly dye my hair between now and my doctor’s appointment?  It seemed unlikely.

And then I realized that the frazzled doctor wouldn’t notice:   I was just another aging woman!  All she cared about was the numbers!

And so I didn’t cancel the appointment.  I would have preferred staying home and crying over an old movie with Olivia de Haviland, but we don’t always get what we want. I did get some pills. Allergy pills!

Next time I go to the doctor, I will have changed my appearance completely.  I plan to change into a wistful, aging sylvan Ovidian dryad with green hair and green clothing.

 The great thing about aging is that you’re invisible!  Still, I like the idea of being an aging sylvan dryad.  Now that would be a true makeover.

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