The libraries are closed after a giddy month of opening “an express” for limited browsing (you got a ticket for 30 minutes, and then if you were too fond of books the security guard evicted you). Of course I did not actually go to the library, but I liked knowing it was open.
So here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a person in months (except in my bubble), and when I’m shopping I have so much difficulty talking through a mask that no one knows what I’m saying, and vice versa. “I’m here to pick up an item.” “What?” And then I repeat myself and hand over my piece of paper. “Is your last name Mirabelle?” “That’s my email.” I point to my name on the form. Then he/she gets my item (a throw, or a pair of warm pajamas) and we wish each other well. As I leave, I hear the next muffled transaction. “What?” “Who?”
And so the masked life continues.
AND SO I’M DISCOVERING OLD BOOKS AFTER ACQUIRING A PAIR OF WARM “READING” PAJAMAS, I.E., REGULAR PAJAMAS.
One of the most stunning books I’ve read recently is Elizabeth Berridge’s novella, The Story of Stanley Brent, which was first published in 1945. This exquisitely- crafted novel, about a quiet man whose life is soured by an ambitious wife, is realistic and very moving, with a breath of hope.
Berridge’s prose is so spare that we do not at first notice her great skill as portraitist. No, her writing quietly takes us over. The characterization is so deft and unflinching that we are reminded of people we know.
Of course Stanley is our favorite character. We first meet him when he is in his twenties, happy and energetic, on the day he proposes to pretty Ada. He is laid-back, but Ada is ambitious and rigid. This telling sentence on page nine describes their relationship:
…marriage was first of all engagement, though the time went quickly enough. Ada saved quietly and fiercely for a good home, Stanley lived in the moment and hoped for some stroke of luck, content with the right to kiss his fiancee and hold her hand, to sit out dances with her. She was promised to him, that was enough.
Their life is ordinary, but their relationship is choppy. Stanley, a partner in a land and estates firm in London, is content with his job. And Ada likes their suburban neighborhood, but she wants to impress people and insists on private school for the children. Eventually, the economy falters, business is slow, and they have to cut back. Ada nags him to start his own business in the suburbs, but Stanley goes his way, trusting things will get better.
Parts of the novel are told from Ada’s point-of-view. It is not that she is unintelligent or mean: she simply isn’t suited to Stanley’s buoyancy. In another time, she might have put that nagging energy into her own business. But perhaps not. It is easier to talk than work.
Stanley survives and regains his contentment . I loved this book, and I also wept a bit over the sad parts..
I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Berridge, though her books are hard to find in the U.S. The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Zephyr Books, an imprint by Michael Walmer. Faber Finds has published a few of her novels, and Persephone has published one of her collections of short stories.
You know I love light weekend reading! I did not forget its importance during a week of praising Ovid’s wife and ambivalence toward The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.
No, but really… I could not write about light reading after my experience last weekend! I am still recovering from an attempt to reread the Nobel Prize-winning Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, or Magister Ludi.
I recently read that The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s masterpiece. Alas, it is as pompous as I’d vaguely remembered. Weighted down by clunky mysticism and hundreds of pages of stilted explication of a Glass Bead Game that dominates the future culture of a monkish elite, it is not the gem of Hesse’s oeuvre–at least not in English translation.
During the counterculture, Hesse’s popularity in translation was heightened by his portraits of mystical antiheroes who dropped out to find meaning in life. (I mean, Meaning in Life.) We carried around tacky paperbacks with cover illustrations of people wearing funny hats or having orgies. Steppenwolf was my favorite, though I have not returned to it–Why spoil a memory? I even went twice to the movie, starring Max von Sydow.
So if you must read Hesse, save Magister Ludi for last. I read it solemnly as a starry-eyed youth, but it was not my favorite. A few years ago, I did reread Demian, and moderately enjoyed it. It would be a better starting point for Hesse, I suspect.
If you are a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, with a jot of SF, Gene Wolfe’s Interlibrary Loan is for you. It is one of my favorite novels of the year, and I enjoyed it so much that I hugged it at one point. Brilliant! Awesome! And then the ending was so abrupt I had to read it twice, and was still disappointed. But it was his last book, posthumously-published, and the editors could hardly call on him to edit from the grave.
Gene Wolfe, who died in 2019, is best known for the award-winning literary science fiction quartet, The Book of the New Sun. (The New Yorker compared it to Ulysses.) Interlibrary Loan is completely different, short, snappy, and satiric.
The premise is so much fun. In the future, an author’s consciousness can be uploaded as a “reclone” to a book. They walk, talk, eat, feel, look human, but are not deemed human. Patrons can check them out of the library and talk to them, even do research. The author-hero, Ern A. Smithe, a reclone in danger of incineration for being not checked out enough, is pleased to be borrowed on interlibrary loan, along with a witty cookbook writer and a flirty romance writer. But the situation proves problematic: his patron, Adah Fevre, the bedridden psychotic wife of a missing professor, wants him to find her husband, and gets out of bed only long enough to accompany Ern to a mysterious island where her husband does research. What a wild trip that is! You feel that Ern is Dashiell Hammett, recloned with Jules Verne, George MacDonald, and H. Rider Haggard.
This book is excellent for 150 pages or so, and reasonably good until the very end. Flawed but fun. There is an earlier book in this duo, The Borrowed Man, which I hope to read very soon.
This year, bizarrely, I have decided to get into the holiday spirit. That is because I was stricken by a card that said “Good Wishes for an Unprecedented Thanksgiving.” Oh no, you don’t! My holiday won’t be “unprecedented.” I will cook a good meal, and then Mr. Nemo can watch football.
I loathe the word “unprecedented.” It has become the most overused word in the English language. I hate to burst your bubble of hyperbole, but the plague is not “unprecedented.” For centuries there have been plagues of smallpox, yellow fever, scarlet fever, flu, Ebola, etc. And yet we Americans smugly believed we were immune. It couldn’t happen here. Apparently world leaders had done simulation games to prepare for such outbreaks, but forgot to draw any conclusions! Hand-washing, masks, and staying home are all we’ve got, babe. Better just do it!
On the bright side side, the cancellation of the holiday reduces family pressure. Have you ever dined with Gilgamesh, Caligula, J. Robert Oppenheimer (“the father of the atomic bomb), and Darth Vader?
On the flip side of the coin, you may not be able to recreate the holiday your autocratic grandmother prepared single-handedly. Mine refused assistance in the kitchen, with the result that my mother and I barely could cook.
Most of us have something to be thankful for. My husband’s recovery from an accident. (That’s the big thing.) A cheap used copy of a book by the late Shirley Ann Grau. (That’s the little thing.)
So let’s have a SMALL BUT GOOD Thanksgiving celebration next week! Let’s not be drama queens.
“It should be as unacceptable to be without a mask in public as it is to be without pants.”–A local emergency room doctor on Covid-19
The holidays are coming! Our first (and last?) Covid Thanksgiving ! Turkey or chicken? Indoors or outdoors? Skip the formalities, or loll under electric blankets outside?
There is still no mask mandate here–but we are proving that a sparsely populated, usually quiet state CAN compete in the international infection per capita records!
Anyway, as you know, I have been seeking comic novels for distraction. Let me share this list of TEN BOOKS TO MAKE YOU LAUGH. You may need it!
1 Emma by Jane Austen. This, as you may know, is my favorite Jane Austen. I left the Pride and Prejudice crowd, because I can’t warm up to Darcy, and note that Elizabeth Bennet didn’t care for him until she saw how rich he is. No, I prefer Emma, a rich, witty, single anti-heroine with no plans to marry. She enjoys husband-hunting for her friend Harriet, an orphan–only it turns out Emma can’t read people at all, and the men are all in love with Emma (Mr. Elton and Knightley), or using Emma as a beard (Frank Churchill). The reader sees all her mistakes, but still loves Emma, because in real life we don’t have a clue what is going on either most of the time! We are Emma.
2 A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Although A Handful of Dust is gut-wrenching, most critics consider it a satire. (Yes, it is a satire.) Is it Waugh’s masterpiece? Well, it is pretty damned good. Waugh is so harshly hyperbolic in his depiction of London society and the casual wantonness of the charming Brenda Last that we laugh. But as the novel progresses, we are shocked by the suffering of the innocent Tony and their son. The relationship of the Lasts is the crux of the novel, and I will say no more, because it is one of those novels where the plot DOES matter. So no spoilers here…
3 Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D. E. Stevenson. A friend suggested Stevenson should “pep up” her diaries and publish them as novels. Stevenson’s delightful quartet of Mrs. Tim Christie books is the result, and I promise they are peppy and witty. Mrs. Tim, a British officer’s wife, is not in the least militaristic; she has a sense of humor, and lightheartedly enjoys the company of the soldiers and their wives. She also hilariously describes family antics, and management of her husband’s moods and the rambunctiousness of their children
Here is a witty quote:
Sit down after dinner feeling very tired. Tim points out that I have done nothing all day to make me tired (which is true, in a way). He continues that I have no business to be tired. I have not got a crowd of half-boiled soldiers to plague my life out from morning to night. Am surprised at this statement (as Tim has been very keen on his territorials up to now), but conclude that something must have occurred to upset him, and resign myself to listen and sympathize instead of starting Sheila Kaye Smith’s latest novel, which I have just procured with vast trouble from the library.”
I recommend the Bloomsbury Reads paperback edition ofMrs. Tim of the Regiment, but do try to check out the other Mrs. Tim books from the library, partly to keep them in circulation.
4 Happy Trails to You by Julie Hecht. This collection of droll short stories by a reclusive New Yorker writer is narrated by an eccentric leftist vegan photographer who adores Paul McCartney and despises Republicans (especially the one she refers to as the “Alfred E. Neuman president”). She despairs of young people who don’t know anything about Elvis and President Kennedy; criticizes the hideous “prostitute fashions” of the 21st century; consults and recommends Dr. Weil’s web site for every health problem; and punches the ATM buttons with the corner of her debit card because of germs.
She would fit right in now that we’re in Covid times!
5 The Limits of Vision by Robert Irwin. It has been years since I read this novel of extreme housewifery, but it is both spooky and witty. The narrator, Marcia, works hard at cleaning, but her war on dirt has become desperate. She converses with Mucor, the “mouthpiece for the Dirt, the Empire of Decay and Ruin, the principle of Evil.” I think I’ve met him while cleaning the cupboard under the sink. Is she mad, or is this science fiction? You decide, next time you talk to Mucor!
6 A Charmed Life by Mary McCarthy.This satiric novel, published in 1955, centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. I loved every minute of it, and empathized with Martha, an artist whose husband keeps her on a schedule to finish a play (she hates writing) and locks her in the attic, as Colette’s husband Willy did to her. There also complications with a violent ex-husband. The artists’ colony is too cozy by half. .
7 Lysistrata by Aristophanes. In this brilliant Greek comedy, the women protest the war by withholding sex from the men. But will it work? N.B. One of my profs retired early because he was afraid he would be sued for sexual harassment if he taught Lysistrata. We are all Lysistrata! Isn’t that what we say to censorship?
8 The Charmers by Stella Gibbons. This charming 1965 novel is reminiscent of Barbara Pym’s books. The middle-aged heroine, Christine Smith, has lost her office job of 30 years during a “reorganization” of the firm. She feels lucky to find a job as a housekeeper for a group of middle-aged artists and finally blooms among the bohemians.
9 How I Got to be Perfect by Jean Kerr. Jean Kerr, the author of the Tony Award-winning play, King of Hearts, and the wife of drama critic Walter Kerr, was one of the most amusing domestic columnists of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. How I Got to Be Perfect (1978) includes the best of three previous collections, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Snake Has All the Lines, and Penny Candy, and a few “new essays.” In “Marriage: Unsafe at Any Speed,” she says that “Till death do we part ”worked in the Middle Ages when life expectations were short due to the plague,” but she advises a written marriage test in our “enlightened age” of longevity. I love her questionnaire. In “As I Was Saying to the Geranium,” she writes about her bad luck with house plants. In “The Kerr-Hilton,” she describes their hilarious search for a bigger house after the birth of their fourth son.
Eventually they look at a huge brick castle in “a style that Walter was later to call neo-gingerbread,” with clock towers, cupolas, and a courtyard that “strongly resembled an MGM set for Quo Vadis.” Walter leans on some oak paneling and briefly disappears into a secret closet. But they buy it because it’s the right size for their family and the layout gives them space from their four sons.
I laughed and laughed.
10 The Nightingales Are Singing by Monica Dickens. Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., this fascinating novel is a domestic comedy and an analysis of a marriage of convenience. Christine, 34, works in a bookstore in London, where she is known as “the estimable Miss Cope.” With no boyfriend and no fiance in sight, she agrees to marry an American naval commander who gives her family much-appreciated food that Americans have access to. In Washington, D.C. she must adjust to her husband’s conservatism and a new culture.
Parts are screamingly funny. Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate. She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine. The marriage has ups and downs, sometimes funny, sometimes very sad. Overall, very insightful and entertaining. And it is free on the internet! Maybe Project Gutenberg? Anyway, I found it.
Any humorous holiday recommendations? I’m always ready for wit!
I have adored Evelyn Waugh since college, when I discovered a stack of cute used Penguins of his satires at a bookstore. Curled up in my cold, tiny room, which had barely space for a bed and a bookcase, I binged on Waugh after a busy day of supplicating the gods of Greek lyric poetry and Roman elegy, and then consulting the omens before the dreaded P.E. class.
And back then, of course, I revered Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the wonderfully vivid, witty, elegiac novel centered on the narrator, Charles Ryder, who meditates on his long relationship with the Flytes, a family of eccentric Catholic aristocrats. Sebastian Flyte, his frivolous best friend at Oxford (and his lover?), carried a teddy bear and drank too much fine wine (the latter gave him gout later in life). Later, Charles falls in love with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. This is Waugh’s most serious novel, my favorite, though most critics prefer his satires.
Why not read a Waugh satire for relaxation? And so I recently read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which I remembered chortling over.
All set for a cozy read… And then…
It is Waugh’s saddest comedy, though I saw nothing sad about it the first time. And it turns out that this autobiographical novel is a record of Waugh’s own nervous breakdown, which took place in 1954 on a cruise to Ceylon when he was 50. He suffered from insomnia, and treated it by mixing alcohol and narcotics. Needless to say, this was ill-advised. And so he spent weeks hallucinating and hearing abusive voices. A fellow passenger sympathetically remembered his speaking to the toast racks and the little lamps on the tables.
Waugh apparently gloried in writing this quirky novel. Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s alter ego, a writer who has a breakdown on the cruise. Most of the novel takes the form of a conversation with his invisible abusers. Honestly, the Soviet satirists are tame compared with Waugh!
The pain is evident in every exchange. But I did not notice that the first time, and I am pretty sure that was not his intention. He was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to make it funny. And comedy is often the best cure.
So I’m going to read some more Waugh, but this time a real comedy!
This is not the first time I have blogged about Ovid, and it will not be the last. In fact, I have spent some of my happiest days reading Ovid in Latin. Many people do not see the point of poetry, and Latin poetry annoys them even more. “Why do you like such boring stuff?” sighed a chic friend who kept trying to get me to wear eyeliner, and believed Latin got in the way of compliance.
You will not be too surprised to learn that a bluestocking like me enjoyed a recent rereading of Ovid’s Tristia (Sad Things), an underrated collection of poems. One of the most fascinating aspects of Tristia is the introduction of Ovid’s wife as a minor character, and the amorous Ovid’s unexpected appearance as a husband.
Written in exile, Tristia are especially triste for a poet so famous for wit, humor, and amorous poems. Ovid’s poetry became anguished and obsequious after he was exiled by Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error).
But never mind the causes of banishment. Blink an eye and it could happen in ancient Rome. In Tristia, Ovid wishes he hadn’t seen whatever he saw–the error–if only we knew what it was!
Written as letters in verse, Book I of Tristia appeals to friends to intercede with Augustus. Urbane and citified to his very bones, Ovid does not thrive in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea. He wonders if Augustus might agree to move the place of exile closer to Rome.
In Tristia I.3, he delineates the sadness of parting from his wife, who is his rock, loyal and loving. Fascinated to discover that Ovid had a wife (this was his third, and we do not know her name), I must share this dramatic passage written from her point-of-view.
The following literal prose translation is mine
But my wife, clinging to my shoulders as I got ready to leave, / mixed these sad words with my tears: “You cannot be torn from me. Together from here, together we will leave,” she said. / “I will follow you and be the exiled wife of you in exile./ And this path is made for me, and the ends of the earth capture me./ Let me come, just a small burden for the fugitive boat. / Caesar’s wrath commands you to leave,/ loyalty commands me. This loyalty will be my Caesar.”
What a darling Ovid’s wife was! He forbade her to come along, naturally. But the exile’s letter to his wife is perhaps almost a genre in Latin. Cicero also wrote a noble letter to his wife telling her to stay in Rome and look after their property and not to consider joining him unless it was certain he would never be forgiven. (Cicero was allowed to come home, unlike Ovid.)
In another poem in Tristia, Ovid compares his wife to Penelope, and notes that he himself has it a lot rougher than Odysseus. I have to think this was true.
I checked at Amazon to see if I could find a translation of Tristia to recommend, and you might try the brilliant Peter Green’s translation of The Poems of Exile, which includes Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea).
Ovid died in exile at Tomis in 17 A.D., never reunited with his wife.
Although I am opinionated and overcritical, I am a model of calmness. Floods…derechos…earthquakes… I have endured these things without undue fuss.
But this year has been tough for everybody. Calm? Have we been calm? No, we have not. You’ve heard me on Covid–heavens, the main reason I voted is that I want someone to get our lives back on track by mandating masks and instituting some kind of plan.
We all deserve a vacation from Covid, and there is none. How I long to go to the beach! A week in a tatty cottage. It doesn’t have to be fancy. And I am not actually mad about the beach. It’s enough to sit on the screened-in porch with a good book. Don’t you agree? And then sit on the beach.
Things will improve, I hope. A vaccine is almost ready and will probably be available next year.
We really, really need a vacation.
But in the meantime, you might wonder, What books can I read to stay calm? The first is a critically-acclaimed new books; the other two have been around for a while.
“Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.
“A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.”
A POPULAR BOOK I HAVE READ (YOU MIGHT HAVE READ IT, TOO): A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson. Here is the description from Goodreads.
“Life is a work in progress, as ever-changing as a sandy shoreline along the beach. During the years Joan Anderson was a loving wife and supportive mother, she had slowly and unconsciously replaced her own dreams with the needs of her family. With her sons grown, however, she realized that the family no longer centered on the home she provided, and her relationship with her husband had become stagnant. Like many women in her situation, Joan realized that she had neglected to nurture herself and, worse, to envision fulfilling goals for her future. As her husband received a wonderful job opportunity out-of-state, it seemed that the best part of her own life was finished. Shocking both of them, she refused to follow him to his new job and decided to retreat to a family cottage on Cape Cod.”
HERE IS A BOOK I LOVE: Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman. The description from Goodreads.
“At fifty, Alix Kates Shulman, author of the celebrated feminist novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, left a city life dense with political activism, family and literary community, and went to live alone on an island off the coast of Maine. On a windswept beach, in a cabin with no plumbing, power, or telephone, she found that she was learning to live all over again.”
I recommend this beautifully-written book, though there is no way I could survive in a cabin with no plumbing.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married couple in possession of a free weekend must seek entertainment outside of the house. Sometimes this involves looking at paint samples at the hardware store (“Which green is the right green?”),” other times it means taking a long bike ride in the country on a very windy day.
But what do you do when you both want a reading weekend? Well, you loaf on the couch and get lost in a book! Anyway, the book I’m lost in right now is Private Means, a lively first novel by Cree LeFavour. I was drawn to this book by the surreal cover. Covers do matter. But it is also worth reading. LeFavour has an eye for meticulous detail, and the buoyant writing jumps off the page. Some of the bounce springs from her fondness for beginning sentences with a participle (a verbal adjective, ending in -ing, such as “running” or “singing”).
For example, the amusing opening sentence is: “Spotting the phone charger, she unplugged it from the wall by the nightstand and threw it onto the bed where the hard, white cube cluttered against the fiberglass rim of the tennis racket.” The details are fun, no? The second sentence also begins with a participial phrase: “Tossing orange swim trunks she found hanging inside the closet in the same direction…”
Private Means is kind of a dog book, though completely different from the dog novel, Separation Anxiety, which I happened to read a few weeks ago. In that novel, the narrator wore her dog in a baby sling. In this novel, Alice is so upset by the loss of her adorable dog Maybelle that she does not accompany her husband Peter, a psychiatist, to the Berkshires over Memorial Day Weekend.
Lefavour writes from the viewpoints of Alice and Peter in alternate chapters. We learn taht Peter is unhappy, too. Since their twin daughters went to college, they have slept in separate bedrooms. Alice is delighted, he less so. And he is a uneasy about Alice’s relationship with the dog: in other words, he’s jealous, though he intellectualizes it as Maybelle’s having taken his place. Actually, what he doesn’t understand is that Maybelle is like her child. Alice is dealing with empty nest syndrome.
The couple lives in New York, and though they are comfortably off, Peter sometimes wishes he had gone into a big money field. Typical midlife crisis, no? Alice, a biophysicist who studies starling murmurations, has been out of the workplace so long she doesn’t quite know what to do about it. More midlife crisis! She is bored by Peter, and she misses her daughter. She is also wryly critical of her Facebook lost dog support group, who meet in person to discuss dog-finding strategies at the apartment of an obscenely wealthy woman. What is Alice doing here, she wonders? Will Julie’s stack of flyers listing animal search resources actually help? She doubts it.
And one funny, perfect sentence follows another.
The chatter of the women’s stories featuring themselves and their exceptional dogs was muted by the baby talk that crept in from the edges. The dogs’ names were invariably babyish, even without the high-pitched and singsong lilt that seeped into the women’s voices. Never mind the dogs weren’t there to perk up their ears. Alice was as guilty as any of them.
AND NOW FOR A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BOOK.
I am a third of the way through Caren Lissner’s charming novel, Carrie Pilby, which I picked up after seeing the movie of the same title on Netflix (Nathan Lane plays her psychiatrist, and Gabrile Byrne her father). Carrie is a true eccentric, an English genius whose rich father shipped her off to Harvard at age 15 because apparently she was too smart to do anything like it in England. Naturally, she was too young emotionally for Harvard, and it didn’t help that her English professor seduced her and then tried to force her to cross boundaries by saying things that made her VERY uncomfortable. They broke up.
At loose ends in New York, this youthful Harvard graduate spends most of her time reading and watching old movies. She does not leave her apartment much. She is a female Holden Caulfield, mistrustful of human beings. And then her psychiatrist asks her to check off items on a list of things that used to make her happy (drinking cherry soda is one) to see if they still make her happy, and adds items that might bring her into contact with other people.
Carrie does better than you would think (so far). I love her adventures as a legal proofreader. But can she survive much contact with people? I haven’t finished the book! The movie has a good but ambiguous ending, and I’m interested to see how the book ends.
Happy Reading, y’all! If you’ve read any good books, tell me about ’em.
You say potato, I say patio. I am sipping a giant cappucchino and trying to stay warm on the patio. As the wind blows my hair and pierces my sweatshirt, I rummage through my bag for a light jacket. I would love to sit inside on a faux leather chair, but the coffeehouse is strictly to-go during the plague. Hence, we’re on the patio.
Patio life is, well, different. It demands a larger coffee and the kind of book you can dip in and out of easily. And that means shorter books, including poetry, comedy, and memoirs, of which I’ve recommended one of each.
So here are Three Short Patio Books I’m reading this November. And I’d love to hear your suggestions for patio-able books.
1 Gilgamesh. What is it about the name Gilgamesh that always filled me with boredom? Why did I never want to read the great Sumerian-Babylonian epic (the oldest poem in the world, so they say)?
But when there’s nothing else to read, this hero’s journey epic is surprisingly entertaining. Gilgamesh, the anti-hero king of Mespotamia, fights monsters with his friend Enkidu, and after Enkidu’s death takes a journey to find a man to tell him how to avoid death. I love Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful translation, and the poem itself is BLESSEDLY short. The introduction and notes take up most of the book.
Love it, embrace it, and hasten to the patio!
2 An Academic Question by Barbara Pym. This posthumously published novel, edited by Hazel Holt, is comical and appealing, yet has a different tone from Pym’s other novels. For one thing, there are no vicars. I do kind of miss them. But it is very enjoyable without them.
The narrator, Caro, a faculty wife, does not much like university life. Her husband Alan wants her to get a job, but she shudders at the thought of working in a library, as a singularly unattractive fellow faculty wife used to. Alan objects to her plan to work in a friend’s used bookstore, which he calls a “junk store.” As you see, being a professor’s wife is unremarkable, and she makes no friends among academics: when a student visits, it is not to see Caro but to used the sewing machine.
In the preface, Hazel Holt quotes one of Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin to explain why this book is different. Pym writes, “It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.”
Actually, it is a bit Drabbleish,. but we love Pym just the way she is. I’m still reading it…
3 Carly Simon’s Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie. I love Simon’s music, and she is also a surprisingly lyrical memoirist. She was fascinated by Jackie before she met her, and used to follow her in the news like the rest of us. (My mother never got over Jackie’s marriage to Onassis.)
I am still reading this, but just to show you the power of Simon’s imagery, let me share one of her similes: she says a friendship is like a house. She goes on to explain:
“In the first weeks and months, you become meticulously and even overly familiar with the front hallway, the mirror, ;the hooks, the sneakers and shoes, and the living room, the candles with their black wicks on the mantel.”
And then she writes about the kitchen, bedrooms, and basement. I never thought of friendship in terms of a house, but it is an intriguing analogy.
We have elected a new President of the United States, who wears a mask, which I approve.
And more good news: I’ve been reading again. So many good books, but I’m doing you a favor by BARELY MENTIONING a 1960s Gothic suspense novel, Black Amber, which features a romance between the heroine and her sister’s late husband, and they must unmask a drug-smuggling ring in Istanbul. Stick to Mary Stewart if you want a good Gothic: she writes so well.
AND NOW FOR A REAL BOOK, Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest.
Let me begin by noting that Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite living American writers. (I have a lot of favorite dead American writers.) Lethem’s stylistic flexibility and off-kilter imagination always astonish me. He has written genre novels and literary novels, has edited Philip K. Dick for the Library of America, penned essays, criticism, and short stories: he does it all. My favorite American novel is Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, based on his experiences at a utopian communal farm. Lethem is getting closer to my Blithedale ideal with a post-apocalyptic farming collective in his new novel, The Arrest.
The Arrest is a very odd book, a kind of dystopian comedy that unfolds after technology dies.
Certainly things are very bleak on Earth; I don’t mean to imply the future is actually funny. One day, without warning, everything stops working. No TV, no internet, no phones: “the death of screens.” No cars, no planes, no trains, just horses and bicycles for transportation. A lot of attention is paid to the growing of food and cooking.
The hero, Journeyman, a former Hollywood writer and script-doctor named Sandy Duplessis, has no special skills in this new world. When the Arrest happened, he was lucky to be visiting his sister Maddie, the lesbian founder of a farming collective. She tried to teach him how to find mushrooms, but he flunks that course. He is an unskilled worker who now helps the butcher kill ducks, and he also delivers food on a bicycle.
Musing about the Arrest, Journeyman gets nowhere.
How even to say when the Arrest began? The question was when had it gained your attention. Plenty flew under the radar. Biodiversity halved? That made an impression, barely. Polar ice and Miami drowned? Terrible, yet also too big to take personally. One day Journeyman noticed reports of a new tick-borne disease. Once you’d been bitten, cow meat made your throat close up. No more American Wagyu tomahawk steak for two, black on the outside, red within. People joked uneasily. Were the new ticks an eco-terrorist hack? On television, someone said that the turning point had been when in 1986 the president had removed the solar panels from the White House. Then again someone else said the turning point had been when St. Paul’s epistle had been delivered to the Romans and ignored. You could debate this shit forever.
We know that something will happen in this relatively peaceful post-apocalyptic community. And so one day, when an armored supercar appears, powered by nuclear energy and driven by Journeyman’s former business partner, Todbaum (tod means “death” in German), everyone is wary. Todbaum and Sandy worked for years on a movie script about an apocalypse, and, at Maddie’s suggestion, added scenes in the pre-apocalyptic world. Maddie and Todbaum are natural enemies: Maddie e is productive, Todbaum destructive.
Everyone comes to see Todbaum’s vehicle, and he begins to tell nightly stories around the campfire of his adventures traveling across country in the Blue Streak (his car). Some tales are gory, some are simply absurd. He also gives them espresso (yes, he actually has a never-ending supply of espresso in the super-car).
His presence shakes up the community. There is some resentment. There are threats of violence. How can the peace be kept? The solution is so bizarre and just plain weird that I was awed–but not entirely in a good way!
Very enjoyable and eerie. My only complaint: the chapters are too short. They do seem to reflect the monotony of the days, though. Not much happens in a single episode.
Anyway, in our present state of apocalypse, I was happy to read a not-too-threatening dystopian novel. Not Lethem’s best, but a good light read for lockdown (if it comes to that). An entertainment that won’t scare you out of your mind like John Christopher’s The Death of Grass.