The Year As a Blog: An Inauguration & Bookish Leftovers

Finally, 2020 is over. Yesterday Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. There were no right-wing riots, thank God, and, indeed, the inauguration went off smoothly, despite a newscaster’s hushed aside: “President Trump still has the nuclear bomb code till noon.”

Without any such nerve-racking journalistic comments, there was plenty of excitement for those of us who are fans of boredom in politics. Joe Biden and his wife Jill looked glamorous, radiantly smooth-skinned, blonde and/or white-haired respectively. Joe wore a dark suit (that’s as far as I go in male fashion critique), while Dr. Jill Biden wore a stylish blue dress and matching coat made of silk, velvet, tweed, and chiffon. This smart ensemble, according to Town and Country, suggested the stability of past inauguration ceremonies, and of previous First Ladies, like Jackie Kennedy, daubed with a tweedy touch of the Royals.

The Bidens

Naturally, Lady Gaga dazzled with far-out fashion, wearing a Schiaparelli cashmere jacket and a fun red puffy skirt that no one else could wear with aplomb. In her inimitable way, she sang the national anthem (and will it go to the top of the charts?). She actually made it sound like great music.

We saw Joe Biden sworn-in as president and listened to his speech. He used the word “unity” several times: that once-normal word was a great relief. And then I turned off the TV and forgot about politics. AND THAT’S HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE. AS I went on a walk, the tension seemed to rise off my body and disappear.

The inauguration got me thinking about transitions in time. Years blur together in my mind, but time is distinctive at the blog, with its constant reminders of date of post, exact time posted, date of comment, etc. And so I mused on my abrupt “blog” transitions from year to year: a glance at my bedside table tells me I am still very much LAST YEAR in terms of the stack of books. Here are four newish books on the stack (only one read). Will I read my leftovers this year?

Last year I intended to read Susanna Clarke’s much-praised Piranesi, and I finally got around to it. This exquisite novel is fascinating and eerie, but does not rise above the genre level, at least for me. That said, I do not know anything about Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Perhaps that would clarify? Does Clarke allude to him, or not? I admired this book, and note that endings seem to be difficult for writers. An almost-classic.

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis. I loved her last novel, The Gods of Tango, set during the early 20th century in Buenos Aires; De Robertis seamlessly delineates the life of a fascinating a young Italian immigrant who disguises herself as a man so she can play the violin in a tango band–a strictly all-male enterprise. Her new book, Cantoras, sounds very different. Set in 1977 in Uruguay, under a dictatorship, this novel describes the danger of political dissent, and we learn that homosexuality is punished by torture or imprisonment. The five heroines of the novel are cantoras (“singers”), which is slang for lesbian. They make a safe life for themselves on Cabio Polonio, an isolated cape whose only other inhabitants are the lighthouse keeper and a few seal hunters. Over the next 35 years, the relationships of the cantoras evolve and change. I look forward to reading it.

Love without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg. What better way to catch up on the romance of Heloise and Abelard than through a retelling? Bragg’s novel moves back and forth between the twelfth century and the twenty-first century: Arthur, a historian and writer, is in Paris writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard, when his daughter joins him to help with research. Sounds like my kind of read.

Daughter of Black Lake, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I loved her novel The Day the Falls Stood Still, set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, a beautifully-written historical novel with a strong environmental slant. Her new book, The Daughter of Black Lake, set in Britannia in the first century A.D., is a different endeavor. It is, according to the book jacket, the story of a young girl named Devout, who lives a simple life revolving around harvest and honoring Mother Earth. Seventeen years later, Devout has a gift (I don’t know what it is!) that helps save her people during famine and the occupation of the Roman military.

Are you planning to read books from last year’s TBR? Or do you move on?

A Neglected Novelist: J. I. M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

We are overwhelmed by current events. I keep reading the news, though I should not. If only there were wise women to make anti-reality charms, as there are in fairy tales.

“It is all too much for me,” I said dramatically after seeing brutal film footage on TV.

Avoiding the news is my best advice, but I also made a New Year’s resolution to read more genre books. Cozy mysteries are ever-relaxing. I can feel my breathing slow down as I peruse a Patricia Moyes or Edmund Crispin.

J.I.M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

Ironically, it was a reading of Michael Innes’ absorbing mystery, A Private Affair, that brought me back to literary fiction. Michael Innes was the pen name of J. I. M. Stewart, a writer of serious novels and non-fiction under his own name.

Stewart (1906-1994), born in Edinburgh, educated at Oxford, and a distinguished critic, lecturer, and professor at Oxford, is forgotten in the U.S. The university libraries have Michael Innes’s books, but Stewart’s books have vanished without a trace. Fortunately, you can also buy cheap copies of the used books online. House of Stratus has reissued them in paperback and e-book format.

I began with Stewart’s The Gaudy (1974), the first in his acclaimed quintet, A Staircase in Surrey. I love this series, mostly set at Oxford, which contains many allusions to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Stewart’s narrator, Duncan Pattullo, a successful playwright, returns to Oxford for the first time in 20 years to attend a gaudy, which is an annual dinner and gathering for alumni. The administration houses Duncan in his old room at Surrey (a college at Oxford), which has been vacated for the weekend by its undergraduate inhabitant, Nicolas Junkin (a play on the name of Powell’s famous character Nicholas Jenkins, the charming narrator of Dance to the Music of Time). When the two meet by chance, because of a muddle about the dates, Duncan feels paternal and slightly nostalgic for the undergraduate’s idealism. In a way, Junkin is his younger doppelgänger. Perhaps Stewart is also doffing his hat to Powell’s somewhat kinder fictional world.

Powell has a dry humor. At the gaudy, it is difficult to recognize old friends and aged tutors, and this is presented as broad comedy. Duncan’s old tutor, Talbert, is in a fog as to Duncan’s identity.

“Ah–Dalrymple!” Talbert said. “We are very pleased that you have been able to come to our dinner.” His voice held all its own unbelievable degree of huskiness–and its old effect, too, of a gravitas quite beyond the reach of a common scholar’s capacity. He might have been announcing something of the deepest import arrived at that morning in an arcane divan, a hortus conclusus dedicated to the just privacy of the councils of princes, and now by him responsibly divulged to some person of desert and discretion among the world’s profane.

Once Duncan identifies himself, Talbert changes gear and asks if he still writes plays. Almost everybody asks this question, which is mortifying, since Duncan has a play in London right now.

I am delighted by Stewart’s witty portrayal of life at Oxford. But I should tell you, Stewart’s world is grittier and darker than Anthony Powell’s. Duncan’s charming old friend Tony Marchmont, now Lord Marchpane, breaks down after the banquet and asks Duncan for help with his son, Ivo, an ordinary bloke who is flunking out, and also may be shadily involved with a suicide (he made a wager with a boy who killed himself) and possibly involved in a rape. TThe men collude with another old friend, a travel writer who is apparently a secret agent, to whisk Ivo out of the country.

But don’t judge Ivo too quickly, readers. The people at Oxford, even the Provost’s wife, think Ivo is rather sweet, and no more callow than most undergrads. The Provost’s wife explains that the boy who killed himself was already in psychological trouble, and she was trying to keep an eye on him: Ivo could in no way be held responsible. But near the end of the book, after many conversations with fascinating, eccentric academics, Duncan sees Tony again. Now that Ivo is safe, Tony shows his ugly side. The problem solved, Tony has no concerns . He says some things so brutal about women that even Duncan is stunned. And Duncan realizes he no longer knows his friends. Time has changed them to the point where they ARE unrecognizable.

The hope, in this novel, seems to be with the academics. They are sweet, completely absorbed in textual criticism, and definitely hilarious. Talbert’s son, Charles, an editor at OUP, believes he can make money off an intellectual game he has invented, a kind of Scrabble with ancient Greek words on one side of the tiles and Russian on the other. “Do you include a digamma?” Duncan asks, hoping to put off playing the game.

When Oxford offers Duncan a five-year job teaching Western drama, he accepts. We see him, still cynical, but hoping to inhabit a calmer state of mind, living among kind, if distracted academics.

What a brilliant, fun read!

And, remember, there is always Michael Innes, whose books are far easier to find in the U.S.

Are You Respectable? Reading Crime Classics

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more genre fiction. You are shocked, I know. (Well, you probably are not.) The best genre fiction is as good as or better than the more anemic of literary novels. And genre books have a certain aura in our bookish household: mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy are pretty much taboo, because my husband thinks they are a waste of time, except for Simenon.

Some love mysteries, all mysteries. I prefer cozies to police procedurals. It wasn’t until I discovered Dorthy Sayers in my twenties that I enjoyed mysteries at all. Then I got hooked on the Four Queens of Crime, Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. And in recent years I have discovered other English mystery writers of the Golden Age.

Recently, I discovered two “crime classics” by Richard Hull and Michael Gilbert. Hull especially is an expert plotter and a smooth stylist

Hull’s Keep It Quiet (1935) is the most delightful of cozy classic crime. When a man drops dead after eating a soufflé at the Whitehall Club in London, was it murder, or a natural death?

The plot unfolds at lightning pace, and Hull’s inimitable humor is revealed in the opening paragraph.

In a way it was all Benson’s fault; or perhaps it was Mrs Benson’s. It might even have been possible for those who must strive to trace things back to their primary origins to have blamed Benson’s doctor for prescribing perchloride of mercury for a carbuncle –but that would be going too far.

The trouble starts when Mrs. Benson’s wife gives her husband an old vanilla bottle filled with perchloride of mercury to take to to the club where he is chef. He knows that perchloride of mercury is to be rubbed on his skin; if imbibed, it is lethal poison. After dinner, Morrison, a chronic complainer, drops dead in the club library. Did Benson put the WRONG vanilla in the soufflé?

I love the character Ford, the bumbling secretary of the club, who reads The Three Musketeers in his office and wonders how D’Artagnan would cope as manager of the club. Ford is a nervous wreck over Morrison’s death, and initiates a cover-up. Dr. Anstruther, a club member who happens to have been Morrison’s doctor, firmly says it is heart failure. The doctor swears the panicked Ford to secrecy, because Ford tends to blab and it probably WAS heart failure.

And then it begins: a blackmail campaign. Ford and Dr. Anstruther receive threatening notes. The novel becomes darker and more sinister, so I am not quite sure if this is 100% a cozy. Sometimes I suspected the culprit, but did not know for sure till nearly the end. I did admire and enjoy this tightly-woven mystery, and will seek more books by Hull.

Michael Gilbert’s Death Has Deep Roots (1951) is part courtroom drama, part action adventure. This is a cozy, fun, rollicking novel, but you read it for action and plot: the characters are so shallow it is hard to take seriously. Victoria Lamartine, a former member of the French Resistance, is accused of murdering Eric Thoseby at the English hotel where she works. She had written a letter asking him to help her find out what happened to her English lover, who disappeared when the Nazis swooped on the farmhouse where they were hidden. The team of solicitors has just a week to dig up evidence on Victoria’s behalf. And it is a wild ride, because many criminals are involved.

Honestly, I didn’t think this was terrific. But it was published in the British Library Classic Crime series, so I had to read it.

It is fun, but perhaps this isn’t Gilbert’s best.

In Which My Husband Becomes a Winter Sports Superstar

You guys! We are laughing so hard.

This photo appeared on an Iowa City website and–yes–it is my husband.


And he says these are his old ski clothes! THAT’S an outrage. His new ones do look more professional.

Do you ever ask yourself, Why? in the iPhone age.

The only thing funnier would be if it were I cross-country skiing. That, believe me, you wouldn’t want to see.

I wonder if I could get a copy of this excellent picture by writing to the Iowa City Nordic Club.

Rock on, superstars! And do tell if you’ve had an inadvertent superstar moment.

A Library Outing: We’d Forgotten There Were Other People!

My old public library (now replaced because the town has grown).

Ah, the public library of our youth! The musty smell of old-fashioned books with library bindings, the discovery of such diametrically opposed writers as Angela Carter and Elizabeth Goudge, Dostoevsky and Betty MacDonald, the reference room lined with the card catalogue and encyclopedia sets, and the comfy chairs in front of the fireplace. I checked out Carter’s The Magic Toyshop at the age of 11, under the impression it was a children’s book. I didn’t finish it…

There is an excellent public library system here, a public library in even the smallest towns in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. On a visit to Hawarden, Iowa (population 2,836), a librarian at a newish library called a volunteer to take us on a tour of the writer Ruth Suckow’s house. And so she helps preserve the culture.

And here are we Americans in 2021, with our excellent libraries closed and culture denied us because of the plague. Much as I appreciate curbside pickup, the experience has its limitations. There you are, in front of the library, unable to go in and browse. All you can do is sit in the car, show your ID at the window to the masked clerk, and pop open the trunk so he or she can deliver the reserved book. The pop of the trunk is the highlight of the transaction.

And so when one of libraries reopened, I couldn’t wait to go and gaze at hundreds of thousands of books. I resolved to pat the bookshelves, too. (Just one of the high shelves.) And I planned to check out all the Gladys Taber and D.E. Stevenson, so the librarians would not weed them from the shelves. They seem to have weeded most of them anyway, so perhaps the check-out-once-a-year rule no longer applies.

I asked my friend Dora to come along to help me lug the Tabers and Stevensons. But she was dithering, Working at Home.

“How can you think of the library at a time like this?” asked Dora dramatically. “They have taken me off the Warner project.”

“What?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “You called it Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.”

“They’re trying to get in my head.”

“There’s nothing in our heads,” I said soothingly. “And that group of narcissists are too miserable to notice anybody but themselves.”

“And now I have to pretend to do work.”

Now that is a very grim situation for Dora. She is really good at work, and it gives her what she calls a “nucleus for angst.” She misses complaining to co-workers in the break room, not “having time” to throw out the teabag (which steeps all afternoon in the cup), and staying at work till at least eight p.m.

“So come with me to the library,” I coaxed.

“Which mask shall I wear?”

I suggested the mask with the happy face.

I know this is not a glamorous outing. Going to the library is ordinary by definitions. The librarians all wear soothing conservative clothes from Talbots (traditional clothes of which I approve!) so as not to distract us from books, and we patrons look like urchins in identical jeans and sweaters. There is less talking than you would expect these days. The library staff sit behind the counters and stare silently at the PEOPLE. Perhaps we are the first people they’ve seen besides one other in months.

Dora said thoughtfully, “I’d forgotten there were other people.” That’s because she gets everything delivered.

I haven’t forgotten. I know there are LOTS of other people because I still recognize what I call “the blog people.” By blog people, I mean actual bloggers, people who “like” my blog (thank you!), occasional commenters, and vloggers at Booktube. All of them are virtual, of course.

I told Dora to check out the “blog people,” especially those who are participating in a Japanese literature event this winter. “You need something to do while you find a new Jarndyce.”

I have other reading plans myself.

Meanwhile, I plan to write haiku about waiting for the vaccine. Next week I plan to write one about the inauguration, if I remember to turn on the TV and watch it.

Have a good weekend! And has anybody else been to the library?

An Environmental Novel: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future”

Where are we to find sanity in the 21st century? Last week right-wing fanatics attacked the Capitol and traumatized the country; this week Congress wasted their time by impeaching Trump–again.

And so I escaped the madness by reading a behemoth of an environmental novel, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. This much-praised novel made Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020 list. It is the most optimistic environmental novel I have read, despite the detailed descriptions of the horrors of climate change. It is also one of those well-written hard science fiction books that appeal to a general audience, not just SF fans.

Robinson, an award-winning science fiction writer, is unphazed by taking on the big issues of our day. He asks the question: can we save our planet from Climate Change? He begins in the 2020s and takes us 30 years into the future.

An expert storyteller, he intersperses the narrative with short treatises on the science and technology that might slow and reverse climate change. Whether you’re concerned about hurricanes, heat waves, pandemics, water, or the ubiquity of burning of fossil fuels, Robinson has a potential fix.

The events of the novel center on the Ministry for the Future, which is established by the U.N. in 2025. The agency is appointed to speculate about the future and calculate how to keep the planet safe for the next generations. The problem facing likable, stable, middle-aged Mary Murphy, who is the head of the Ministry, is that no one will give them money to carry out their ideas.

And so they are mainly Talking Heads who present ideas at conferences. They don’t worry much about not being able to do anything. In fact, Mary does not begin to understand the system and where to apply pressure until a young American eco-terrorist, Frank May, kidnaps her (just for a few hours) and lectures her on economics and the environment.

Frank is the true hero, though he is a tormented, sad character, mentally ill as a direct result of climate change. He is the sole survivor of a terrifying wet-bulb temperature heat wave in a city in India that kills 20 million altogether. He was volunteering at a clinic and took charge of a crowd of Indians who needed relief from the heat after a power outage. He hooked up a window air conditioner to a generator, but thugs broke in and stole the generator. His only option was to lead them to a lake where the water was already much too hot to cool them. He rages over the fact that he survived. The rescuers were not sure he was human when they first saw him with his parboiled skin. And he does not feel human.

As you can imagine, he is haunted by the deaths he witnessed. He returns to Glasgow, where he had gone to school, and tries to find a reason to live. His therapist tells him he can always wait and kill himself tomorrow. On a walk through the city, he constantly panics because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He thinks of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Give yourself away, give up on yourself and all you thought you had. Feed the birds, help people. The positive of that was so obvious. Do like Saint Francis. Help people.

But he wanted more. He could feel it burning him up: he wanted to kill. Well, he wanted to punish. People had caused the heat wave, and not all people—the prosperous nations, sure, the old empires, sure; they all deserved to be punished. But then also there were particular people, many still alive, who had worked all their lives to deny climate change, to keep burning carbon, to keep wrecking biomes, to keep driving other species extinct. That evil work had been their lives’ project, and while pursuing that project they had prospered and lived in luxury. They wrecked the world happily, thinking they were supermen, laughing at the weak, crushing them underfoot.

Despite Frank’s crimes, which we know little about, and perhaps there are only two, because he is basically a good person, he loves his volunteer work in refugee camps in Zurich, which is his real work, a kind of social work. He is briefly married to a widow, and acts as a father to her two daughters , but there is no chance of happiness; he is too unstable. And things go downhill for him, while Mary continues to work the system, and sometimes meets with him to discuss things.

So does Frank save the world?

This is an intense, fast-paced didactic novel. You might want to know: is Robinson a scientist?

In a Rolling Stone interview, he explains that the story always comes first but he tries to be as accurate as possible.

” So I try to stick to the sciences as closely as I can, even in my Mars novels. I don’t break the laws of physics. I don’t like fantasy. And I do live with a scientist. My wife [Lisa Nowell, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey] is really quite tough on my manuscripts in terms of accuracy and tone”.

An excellent read, and a very informative one, which I would call “important” if I were blurbing it. That might sound corny, though. My criticism? It is at least 50 pages too long. Why do editors feel that they must publish such big books?

But I will never forget Frank May. One of the saddest but most memorable characters in American literature!

A Marvelous Middlebrow Novel: Rumer Godden’s “The Greengage Summer”

There comes a time when we realize we are unlikely to visit Washington, D.C., again. Not that we were particularly drawn to the nation’s capital, but right now we are sickened by the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by violent white men in ball caps. Terrifying and crazy.

Once inside, they became distracted by taking selfies. Fortunately, this helped police track some of them on social media.

A very, very, very sad day for our country.


I repaired my rumpled human spirit by curling with The Greengage Summer.

Rumer Godden is an underrated, once very popular novelist, and her 1958 novel, The Greengage Summer, was adapted as a film in 1961, starring Samantha York and Kenneth More. (I haven’t seen the film, but it is on Youtube.) Godden brilliantly portrays the culture of outsiders, and in this book the outsiders are English children on vacation in France. Though this is classified as an adult book, perhaps it could double as a children’s book.

The narrator, 13-year-old Cecil Grey, is in a unique position to observe adult behavior, though she does not always interpret its meaning correctly. On a family vacation in France, her mother is hospitalized with a blood infection, leaving Cecil in charge of her three younger siblings in the hotel while her older sister Joss, age 16, stays in bed with an unnamed adolescent malady. Cecil is the most level-headed, and even understands French, though she doesn’t speak it well. She is frustrated, however, by the powerless condition of being betwixt-and-between: “…now I was relegated to a no-man’s-land myself. I could see it was inevitable–thirteen is not child, not woman, not…declared…”

Godden has a lyrical, whimsical style. Her narratives zigzag from present to future to past, as she inserts dialogue from a different times to highlight an event in the vivid present. (Less of that here than in some of her books, though.)

And she clearly plans the structure from the first sentence to the last. The Greengage Summer begins literally and figuratively in a Paradisal garden, which is eventually invaded by sin. (Joss has a dress she refers to as “sin.”)

Here is the first paragraph:

On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness, because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will–though he was called Willmouse then–Willmouse and Vicki were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

To keep them from underfoot, the manager banishes the children into the garden by day. Sometimes they go to the river, but mostly they lounge in the grass and watch the adult goings-on from afar. Madame Zizi, the owner, is obsessed with her handsome, well-dressed English lover, Eliot, who, when he is the mood, takes the Grey children under his wing. After 16-year-old Joss recovers from her illness, Eliot, wants to be with them all the time, because she is beautiful. Joss knows that he is flirting, but remains innocent of the implications until Madame Zizi makes a unforgivable scene. Then Joss plays the person she is not–with calamitous results.

I esteem Godden for her knowledge of psychology as well as her expertly-woven plots. For instance, the emotional situation here is clear to the children–they recognize the love triangles within triangles, though the underlying personal histories of the lovers are not always clear. Okay, perhaps the end is a bit like a children’s book, with the plot rushing off in an almost ridiculous direction. But do you know what? I believed it.

The Good People of 2021: Recommending Good Books & Other Challenges

Darn, they would never leave the bar and join a book club!

Shortly after my first marriage, I got stuck at a party in the country. It was not the least bit Chekhovian, and I wished I’d stayed home. I was very bored, as the only sober person, and I couldn’t leave, as the only non-driver. I perched in the kitchen and read The Whole Earth Catalogue cover-to-cover while the other guests wandered around the edge of a corn field boisterous and drunk. Afterwards, I told my alcoholic first husband how boring I found his friends.

“They’re good people,” he told me.

That depends on your point-of-view. They drank every night at the same bar, so in a sense he knew them better than anyone. His people were his people… and by my standards, they were not particularly wonderful.

But seriously, what is good? Is it good to host a party where everyone gets wasted? I am not saying it is bad, but is it good? There is drinking in the Symposium, but did the guests pass out from too much wine? I don’t remember that part…

What I learned from the non-Chekhovian party: never go to a party in the country and bring your own book.


Any person who can recommend a good book is a good person in my book. But sometimes there is too much goodness, if you know what i mean. I can get my head around the concept of Women in Translation in August or German literature in November, but Book Riot’s “Read Harder” challenges are so issue-oriented they seem satiric.

For example:

A Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: A Romance by a Trans and/or Nonbinary Author.
I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. So…this is actually a genre? I promise you I will never read romances by Trans and Nonbinary Authors. Likewise, I will never read romances by Heterosexual and Homosexual authors. The world ended the day Ron Charles, editor at The Washington Post Book World, wrote an article in which he pretended to like romance novels. Similarly, Michael Dirda occasionally mentions Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. The women remain silent…

Some Book Riot “Read Harder” challenges are decidedly noble. There is a challenge to read “books about disabled, chronically ill, Deaf, or neurodivergent authors.” (Why is “deaf” capitalized?_ And what kind of circumlocution is “neurodivergent”? Does it refer to Carrie Fisher, William Styron, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway, and Byron? I recommend the following:

I can get my head around the following challenge, but is it preaching to the choir?

THE “READING WOMEN” PODCAST HOSTS “THE READING WOMEN CHALLENGE.” But does anyone who participates in this challenge actually need it? I read mostly women authors, and my guess is other women do, too. But I admit, I have never read and will never read”a Muslim middle grade novel” or”short story collection by a Caribbean writer” (unless I see one at a bookstore).

The next book challenge is for the stodgy and makes sense, sort of, in a goofy way.

THE 52 BOOK CLUB READING CHALLENGE. Fifty-two books in 52 weeks. No problem! The prompts are a little silly, as these things tend to be, but I am quite sure I can handle reading a “book with a deckled edge” or “a book you’d rate 5 stars.”

If all else fails, you can choose the latest books at The Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Goodreads and then participate in the Goodreads Challenge, which involves typing the number of books you hope to read and then trying to meet the challenge.

Happy 2021, and May You Find the Challenge for You!

Out of Time: Rumer Godden’s “The Peacock Spring”

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden is one of my favorite middlebrow writers, and I’ve been thinking about her because of the lavish TV adaptation of Black Narcissus (the first of her three nun novels, published in 1939). I prefer Godden’s later nun classic, In This House of Brede (1969), but I am fascinated by the disturbing portrayal in Black Narcissus of the dazed nuns distracted by the beautiful Himalayan landscape.

I went through a Godden-mad phase in the zips, when I searched online for her (mostly) out-of-print novels. I was so impressed by these books, and so surprised that so few people read her. Like many women of my generation, I discovered her when I was a child: she wrote several books about dolls, but my favorite was An Episode of Sparrows, about a garden in London. And, as I have indicated above, I was absolutely crazy about In This House of Brede, to the point that I considered becoming a nun–for about an hour.

Now Virago has reissued most of Godden’s books, but I do have several older copies. The other day I was browsing my shelves and found an old book club edition of The Peacock Spring (bought for $1), which I had never read. I am lukewarm about her later books: 1974 is past the date of vintage Godden! This one is not quite as great as some of her others, but Godden’s style is lyrical and witty, and she always has something worth saying.

Born in England and raised in India, Godden manages to be quotidian and unconventional at the same time. Set in India, The Peacock Spring is partly a love story, partly a hate story. Two English half-sisters, fifteen-year-old Una and her frivolous younger sister, Hal, are yanked out of boarding school before the end of term. Their father, Edward, a diplomat in India, wants them to leave school immediately to live with him. The request is very odd, since they have been living with an aunt during vacations.

The situation is especially bad for Una, a math genius who does not want her education derailed. Her sister, Hal, who is completely unacademic, is enthralled by the exoticism of India. But beware fathers seeking their daughters: he has not been straightforward. He has invited them here only so that hisbeautiful Eurasian mistress, Alix, can be their “governess” and have a reason to live with him.

The hatred between Alix and Una grows as Una discovers her hypocrisy and ignorance. Alix simply does not know enough to teach Una. And when, during a battle over calculus, Una declares her enmity by flinging the math book into the garden, she earns the approval of Ravi, a handsome, college-educated gardener who is a poet and who dislikes the haughtiness of Alix. They become close friends, over calculus and poetry.

All of these relationships are muddled and complicated, and can stand in for the political misunderstandings between the English, Indians, and Eurasians. But none of these relationships remain static. Things shift as each discovers his or her strengths and weaknesses–especially weakenesses.

I love the way Godden inserts temporal speculation into the narrative–mostly in the subjunctive mood. This is characteristic even of her early writing.

Edward’s three or four days in Japan had stretched to a fortnight. “Didn’t you miss me?” he was to ask them. “We hadn’t time” would have been the truthful answer or, for Una, rather, “I was out of time.” She felt she might have been in India for an aeon. “Well, the Hindi words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same,” Alix had told her, “and the ‘day before yesterday’ and the ‘day after tomorrow.'” Time seemed to have disappeared.

A good, if not great novel!

Feel Good, Feel Bad: Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford” & Guido Morselli’s “Dissipatio H.G.”

Illustration for “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Winter used to be colder and more challenging: blizzards, hills of snow dumped by snowplows on side-streets, fields flooded for ice-skating, hiking in snowy parks, dodging into cafes and diners for coffee or hot chocolate.

Fast forward to 2021: winters are usually mild now, but last week we had a big snowfall and it is just like an old-fashioned winter. Really, it cheers me up. I’m not going out for hot chocolate at the moment, but at least we can appreciate the sparkle of the outdoors.

And because I’m cheered by the wintry weather, I’ve been mixing up my feel-good reads with feel-bad reads, with no fear of being clobbered by depression. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s almost too cozy novel, Cranford, and then Guido Morselli’s grim dystopian novel, Dissipatio H.G.

First, the feel-good read: Cranford. I have always admired Mrs. Gaskell’s industrial novels, especially North and South, but was never able to bear Cranford. I’d read a chapter and then give up, finding it mildly funny but sentimental. Even knowing that Judi Dench was in the TV series did not persuade me to watch the series or read the book. All those bonnets, all that knitting… Usually for me, but not this time.

But I discovered Cranford is a delight when I broke down and perused it over the holidays. The narrator, Mary Smith, a former resident of Cranford, wittily explains and analyzes the domestic arrangements and social doings of the “Amazons” in Cranford. Yes, the residents are mostly ladies, some of whom live in genteel poverty. And men take a secondary place to them, except for the doctor.

Mary is so precise that she has almost an anthropological turn of mind. (But her descriptions are tongue-in-cheek.) Money is never discussed in Cranford, and it is considered “vulgar” to serve expensive food at the evening entertainments, which end very early because everyone keeps such early hours. On Mary’s visits to her sweet, impoverished friend Miss Matti, they knit in the dark–Matti claims she can knit without seeing– and light only a single candle when Matti admits night has fallen beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Mary observes,

‘Elegant economy’! How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always ‘elegant’, and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious’; a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied. I shall never forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor–not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows; but, in the public street in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house.

This charming, well-written, sentimental novel will pleasantly while away a winter day.

And now for the feel-bad read, Dissipatio H.G. by Guido Morselli. This elegant, philosophical, psychological post-apocalyptic Italian novel is not a cozy catastrophe. And here’s a tip: Do NOT read the introduction until after you finished the novel. Morselli’s life was so depressing that you will break down in tears and have doubts about the novel. Read the book, which is very sad but also a fascinating political sociological analysis of our society.

The title, Dissipatio H.G., refers to the “vaporization,” or “nebulization” of humani generis (the human race). The narrator is the last man on Earth: he missed the end of the world while he was in a cave, attempting to commit suicide. At the last minute he decided he liked drinking too much to go through with it, and he finds the human race has vanished. There are no bodies in the crashed cars, no traces of humans in the hotel (except indentations on the mattresses and pillows), no suitcases or clothes missing from hotel rooms, nobody in the airport, nobody in the train stations. Eventually he has a breakdown and moves into the hotel.

One of his theories is that the humans have disappeared en masse by some planetary process because they are responsible for the pollution and devastation of the earth. The animals, by the way, thrive now that man is gone. The narrator rages against the consumerism and materialism that was killing the eartly, focusing on the horrendous new city Chrysopolis (Gold City), which has an almost equal number of banks and churches.

He muses,

For me it is the Biblical antitype, the triumphant consummation of everything I scorn, the epitome of all I detest in this world, my negative caput mundi. My fuga saecli, my flight from the world, was even then an escape from this place, the precise material expression of our century. Even the fact that I’m looking at it now feels implausible, dispiriting.

This is intellectual science fiction, part political treatise, part a tirade against our consumerist culture. The emphasis is on ideas, not on survival. And in fact survival does not seem to the narrator like a very good idea.

I do recommend reading Dissipatio H.G. when you are in a sunny mood! Cranford is good for all moods.