A Giveaway: “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday

This is one of the Best Books of the Year, according to The New York Times critics. And  I’m giving it away to anyone willing to reimburse me for the postage!

Halliday writes beautifully, and yet I found Asymmetry gimmicky.   It consists of two novellas, the first about Alice, a twenty-something wannabe writer who has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous American writer in his seventies. Coincidentally,  Halliday in her twenties had an affair with seventyish Philip Roth.  Every reviewer gossips about this, so I assume the tittle-tattle was part of the publicity package.

As a Second Wave feminist, I eventually tired of Alice and Ezra.    It’s not that women who f— their way to fame don’t have talent, but it’s the f– part that cements the deal.  Fortunately, in the second novella, “Madness,” Halliday  casts aside  Alice and Ezra to delineate a truly interesting character, Amar, an upper-middle-class  Iraqi-American researcher who is detained at Heathrow Airport in London on the way to Iraq.  This is the truly brilliant part of this novel.

Alas, in the final section Ezra is back!  He gives an interview on a BBC radio show,  “Desert Island Discs.”   And, not surprisingly,  Ezra mentions an interesting young writer he is helping.  Just as we thought, Alice has benefited from Ezra’s patronage.

Somebody will love this novel, but I want it out of my  house!  When will women get out from under men?

How I miss Second Wave feminism!

The book is beautifully written and critically acclaimed.  Leave a comment or email me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com if you want the book.

Retro-chic Gifts for the Common Reader

Common readers are chic.

If you’ve been to a reader’s fashion show, you know what I mean.

On the runway you will see a bespectacled model dressed in a Jane Austen sweatshirt and composition-book print yoga pants. She holds a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and sips from a mug that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

But, dear reader, you can have a chic Christmas without the latest fashions! JUST TREAT YOURSELF (OR FRIENDS) TO ONE  ITEM BELOW.

A reference book.  A good reference book has the advantage of being written by experts and researchers. Wikipedia is fun, but there are mistakes.  I recommend an old set of encyclopedias (cheap at used bookstores), James Audubon’s Birds of America, or anything else that interests you.

A dictionary (the biggest you can afford).  You will enjoy the detailed entries, love the etymology, and when you look up “ineffable,” you will see  pages and page of words beginning with “i.”  (On the internet you see only what you look up.)

A thesaurus.  So many synonyms!

4.  A slim volume of poetry.  Everyone should have one.  You might read A. E. Stalling’s new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin, 33 pages) but you will never open that huge anthology of classical poetry.

5.  A used copy of a novel by Balzac (preferably a Penguin).  “This old thing? I’ve read it, like, 100 times.”  Pere Goriot…Cousin Bette…  You’ll  be late for work  BECAUSE YOU WERE READING but who can fire you for that?

6.  A new book journal.  Forget the spreadsheet and return to paper when you write your book journal.

7.  Reading socks (Barnes and Noble).  They’re just socks, but you want them!  You can also write your own label, Reading Socks, on an ordinary pair of socks and give them as a gift.

8.  An old-fashioned Rolodex to keep track of characters in Proust.  Experience the 20th century! It’s fun to write the information on cards!

9.  A mug with a bookish slogan. They’re frivolous, but we all like a Jane Austen mug.

10.  A totebag  doesn’t need a literary slogan, but everyone needs a totebag!

DO LET ME KNOW YOUR FAVORITE RETRO-CHIC BOOK GIFT IDEAS!

How Menopause Made Me a Better Reader

In movies, menopausal women sweat during hot flashes and remove their clothes as they make the most important presentation of the year.  Ha, ha!   I assure you, nothing of the kind happened to me. It’s like the menstruation myths.  You don’t turn into an emotional witch.  And once your reproductive system doesn’t define you,  you can change your life.

READ BETTER BOOKS, I wrote in my journal.

I went back to the classics.  And since the canon has expanded to include women, there are even MORE great books to read.

The women’s canon is in flux, though.  Mind you,  I have a distorted idea of literary taste because of Anglophilia, cute blogs, internet forums, and all those English publications I read. There is a tendency today to throw everything together, the literary and pop culture.  Virginia Woolf is in the canon, but can Elizabeth Gaskell,  Viragos and Persephones possibly compete?

It would seem so, judging from enthusiastic posts on the internet.

Mind you, I love Gaskell to bits.  North and South is a delightful read, but it is no Middlemarch .  And Gaskell is not quite in the class of the other George, either:   George Gissing, who is not, I fear, quite in the  canon, though he wrote New Woman novels.

I don’t mean to start a riot when I say that Viragos and Persephones are overrated.  I have read a lot of Viragos, the A list and the B list.   Virago publishes the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor, Molly Keane, and Margaret Oliphant.  But nothing would compel me to return to the plodding Sheila Kaye-Smith or Winifred Holtby.  And though I enjoy Persephones, I do not remember a single  Persephone title.  What does that say about  wonderful middlebrow reads?

Being an American, I have a clearer idea of the American women’s canon:   Susanna Rowson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdfich…

But people quarrel constantly about the canon.  Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder are now in question.  The ALA demoted Wilder’s Little House books and took her name off an award, apparently because Pa was insensitive about Native Americans and blacks in the 19th century…   Lee’s use of the “n” word in historical context has also caused a crisis.

Is censorship on the rise? Book-banning is always popular.  The unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published until 1960.   Not long ago, an upper-class white woman chided me because “Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin make black people feel bad.” Suburban white women don’t have the final say, though.  Several African-American writers on the PBS show, The Great American Read, praised Huckleberry Finn and  To Kill a Mockingbird, which was voted the most popular American read.

In 2015, in a  New York Times dialogue about who should be kicked out of the canon, Francine Prose wrote,

One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.

Before menopause, I would have been indignant about Bloom’s list.  Fortunately, I read The Western Canon after menopause.  My list has more women, but I like the traditional canon, too.  Viva the hormone change!

Reading Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry” & Are Reading Socks Real?

This weekend I picked up a copy of Lisa Halliday’s first novel, Asymmetry, because (a) it is in paperback, and (b) it made so many critics’ Best of the Year lists.  Some of the critics are always wrong, but they can’t all be wrong, can they?

This smart, absorbing, accomplished novel is a good read.  It is divided into three sections, and I have finished the first part, “Folly .” Because I hadn’t read the reviews, I was astonished by the premise: Alice, a lonely young editor in New York, has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous prize-winning elderly writer. And it’s based loosely on fact. Halliday, who is now 41, had an affair in her 20s with Philip Roth.  He was 45 years older than she.

I probably would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t googled her and read about the thing with Philip Roth. Roth’s American Pastoral may be THE great American novel of the 20th century, but when  he began to write about very old men who had affairs with young beautiful women, I thought,  Sheer fantasy.  I was wrong!

Fortunately Halliday is such a good writer it isn’t necessary to know about the Roth affair.   In the context of the novel, it makes sense.  Alice is lonely, and her job in publishing isn’t so great.  We first meet her sitting on a park bench.

In the perfect opening sentence, Halliday sketches Alice’s character  and mood.

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?

It is funny and charming that an editor doesn’t care for a book without quotation marks.   She pretends to read it when Ezra, whom she immediately recognizes, sits down beside her to eat his ice cream.  He asks her what she’s reading:  she shows him her book.

“Is that the one with the watermelons?”

Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.

When they become lovers a few weeks later,  Ezra becomes Pygmalion to her Galatea.   He tries to educate Alice:  he gives her a bag of books he thinks she should read, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, July’s People, and The Joke.  Soon they are buddies who watch baseball games together. He is also very paternal: he sends her shopping for a warm coat  because he doesn’t think hers is warm enough, buys her an air conditioner during a heat wave, and invites her to his gorgeous country home, where she must pretend to be his research assistant.

Eventually his health problems get in the way. He has heart disease, degenerative joint disease of the spine, glaucoma, and osteoporosis.  After a  harrowing night at he emergency room, Alice cries because she  wants a “normal” relationship. His health problems are simply too much for a twentysomething woman to cope with.

I am a little more than halfway through the novel: the second part is about a different character, Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers at Heathrow.  We shall see how it all connects.

Though it may not be my favorite book of the year (too soon to tell), she has a  smart, elegant style, and I will certainly read anything else she writes!

ARE READING SOCKS REAL?

Are reading socks real?

I do want reading socks!  They sell them at Barnes and Noble.

I want magical socks for reading! It is so cold in here at night, due to my husband’s having been raised in the north and liking a cool house, that I huddle under 10 blankets and quilts while I’m reading.  Would cozy long soft socks, lined with polyester fleece,  or short socks that seem to be fake fur-trimmed slippers, make a difference?

They’re just socks, I tell myself.

I do need more socks, though.

The Class in Classics

Class is fluid when you are in classics. You can rise a class or two in the world.  Without classics, I might have puttered around for years as an office clerk or at a library circulation desk (and the latter would have been a long shot). But when you are young, have a degree in classics, and invest your life savings in preppy clothes, you can get any job. Yes, you’ll have to move to Maine or Texas, but at least you’ll work.

I fell out of the middle class for a time.  Can that really happen?  When my parents got divorced, my dad got custody, and then got bored and left me to live on my own. A lesbian teacher on the prowl picked me up (I was her second high school student) and installed me in her house for a year and a half. I wonder, what class was I then? Meretrix (a prostitute)? Serva (a slave)? Later, I knew another classics student who’d been prey to whoever came along, and had a reputation as a meretrix, poor girl. She’d had sex with the sex education teacher.

Classics brought us back into the middle class.  We both found good, if not lucrative, jobs.

Classics— derived from the Latin noun classis,  meaning “a  class or division of the people (according to property),” and classicus,  an adjective meaning “of or belonging to the highest class.”

Language enthusiasts love Greek and Latin. Some enjoy the puzzle of the grammar and syntax, others the elaborate figures of speech and meters, still others the history or the philosophy.

I was always a serious reader.  I’d devoured Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Trollope on my own. I was a Victorian, or might as well have been. But unlike John Stuart Mill, who started learning Greek when he was three,  I took it up in college.  It all started when I decided Homer was ridiculous in translation. Before I knew it I was studying Greek and Latin, and reading Homer and Virgil in the original. I was an epic freak!

It wasn’t just the literature I loved, it was the all-absorbing process of translation. It required so much equipment!  I hustled into the library and spread out my Greek and Latin books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, notebooks, and flashcards.

The Greeks and Romans are with me for better or worse, through sickness and health. In the hospital, I have recited lines of Latin poetry feverishly. Once a doctor decided I was well enough to go home when he discovered me reading Lucretius in my room.  Nowadays I snuggle up on the couch with classics and a dictionary.  I’ve read classics so long I no longer need an entire table!  There’s less “equipment.”

The ancient languages are no longer spoken; you study them to read the literature. And since you are reading poetry, plays, philosophy, oratory, history, and more, the vocabulary is different for each genre. Even if the words overlap, they mean something different. That’s why you need a dictionary.   For instance, the Latin word classis, which can mean “class,” also means “fleet (of ships).”You cannot read Virgil or Livy without encountering a  classis, a fleet of ships.

Excuse me while I go read Sappho and Catullus.  (Sappho influenced Catullus, and he translated one of her poems.”

Later!

Escape Reading: Ten Comfort Books That Beat Holiday Blues

This is the time of year when I like to slow down.  WAY down.

I don’t participate in the holiday frenzy. In the  glossy commercials, attractive nuclear families give orders to their robots, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.   Am I the only one who doesn’t want texts from my vacuum cleaner on Christmas morning?

I blot out Christmas till it’s actually here. We try to have a nice day rather than a gift exchange.

And the hours formerly devoted to shopping are now  spent reading comfort books.  Mind you, these are not all classics but they transport you to another world—and then you’re satisfied with this one!

COMFORT BOOKS THAT CALM YOU DOWN .

1  I love D. E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington, a light, charming novel I inhaled in an afternoon.

Although there is a marriage plot, the  heroine does not want to marry.  Bel, an orphan from the country, has a good job as a secretary in London.  She misses flowers and greenery, so she makes a secret garden on the flat roof outside her window. And this secret garden is so charming that I didn’t care what happened next!

One evening she finds a man sitting on her deck-chair in the garden.  Mark is an artist, and almost immediately starts sketching her.   He is fun, but impulsive and selfish. I do love Stevenson’s description of the artists’ scene!

The other man in her life is  Mr. Brownlee, her boss, who  upgrades her job responsibilities before he goes on a business trip to  South America.  Jealousies in the office escalate, and she ends up out of a job and on vacation in Scotland  with her old school friend, Louise. I won’t tell you what happens–but it ends happily for her!

The Truth by Terry Pratchett  is a witty satire of journalism, set in Pratchett’s fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.

The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, a writer whose short stories were published in The New Yorker.  She was the  daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale.  She was inspired to write this memoir about her unconventional family by relics  she found in  her mother’s studio when she cleaned it out after Lilian’s death.   A classic!

4  Carter Dickson’s And So to Murder, a  fast, funny Golden Age Detective novel with no corpses!  Set in a movie studio at the beginning of World War II, it focuses on the foibles of movie directors, writers, and actors as well as struggles to close blackout curtains and the fear of Nazi spies.

5. An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde.  Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France. He hires an architect to renovate it. While he is away finishing a film, the contractors make a mess, and everything that can go wrong does. Any home-owner will appreciate these difficulties, even if his or her house is not 500 years old!

Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful  novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain.  An enjoyable light novel!

William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life.  These delightful autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two  in a series of five.  They were praised by Kingsley Amis and John Braine.  Neglected classics!

8  In Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat,  moody flappers and free love abound. The narrator, a writer, relates the tragic  story of Iris Storm, a languorous , beautiful woman of the 1920s who wears a green hat and drives “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot.”

9 Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in for the London Times, was published as a novel in 1939.  Mrs. Miniver’s domestic life is happy, she loves her children, one of whom is at Eton, and she  describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding.” In my favorite scene,  she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a  hat.

10  Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.  Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for her children’s books. (You can read an excellent article about her by Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books.)  I thoroughly enjoyed  Girl of the Limberlost, which I recommend to fans of Anne of Green Gables.  Determined to get an education, Elnora defies her mother, a reclusive farmer who won’t give her money for new clothes.   Mocked by the other students, she walks home crying.  Two neighbors discover Elnora’s plight and buy the appropriate clothing and books – and a local expert on natural history, Bird Woman, informs her she can sell moths from her collection. An excellent coming-of-age story.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE COMFORT BOOKS?

Afternoons off: Cultural Adventures, or Reading?

I take one afternoon off a week.

The first rule of the afternoon off is:  No technology.  The second:  Have a destination.   Look at public art,  have an ice cream soda at the fun restaurant that never gets the orders right, or persuade a librarian to let you  borrow MacKinlay Cantor’s out-of-print novel, Spirit Lake, which is bizarrely in a special collection.

Fortunately, we had a gorgeous day, so I set out to look at public art.  I decided to check out the “Timeless Beaverdale” mural in the Beaverdale neighborhood.

“Timeless Beaverdale” mural:  I really don’t know where the hell this is!

The Beaverdale neighborhood has a mystique.  They love their Beaverdale bricks (brick houses), annual parade and festival (we always find squished candy on the street), and every business has “Beaverdale” in the title.

All right, I couldn’t find the mural!

There are several stores in what I think of as “downtown Beaverdale.”   But the mural wasn’t there!

And then I learned there is another block of restaurants and pubs near the Catholic church.  The mural is somewhere around there.  But the sun was setting, and the vampires would soon come out…

Another day.

AND NOW FOR FIVE LITERARY LINKS.

There are more new”Best of ” lists every day.  Although the same few books tend to get mentioned again and again, occasionally you find something new.  Here are five links!

Shelf Awareness, the publisher of two newsletters for readers and booksellers.

The Guardian.  Best books of 2018: Hilary Mantel, Yuval Noah Harari and more pick their favourites

The New York TimesTimes Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Vulture.  The 10 Best Books of 2018

And last but not least:

Largehearted Boy, a compilation of  Online Best Books of 2018 links

Happy Reading and Happy Afternoons off!