A Tragedy at the Library

des-moinesDes Moines, the capital of Iowa, is unknown to the outside world.  People whoosh past it on I-80 and don’t give it a second look.  Actually, Des Moines is a lovely small city, though no one would call it a tourist destination—and some even call it “Dead Moines.”  Perhaps you know it as Bill Bryson’s birthplace from his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Bibliophiles prefer Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, but regional literature experts occasionally check out the Des Moines Public Library’s special collection of Iowa Writers, which includes books by forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners MacKinlay Kantor, Susan Glaspell, Margaret Wilson, Hamlin Garland, and Edna Ferber. 

Here is why I have crossed the Des Moines Library off my list:   I am a coward.

On  September 17, a homeless man, David Franklin Smith, entered the atrium of the Des Moines Public Library, poured a flammable liquid on himself, and set himself on fire.  The staff put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, and Smith was airlifted to the burn unit at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City,  where he died.  The police concluded he committed suicide.

des moines libraryThe world is so dangerous these days—random shootings, terrorism,  global warming, xenophobia, insane politics—and now a mentally ill man setting himself on fire.  We’re terrified by the things that happen day after day. 

Somehow, it is taken for granted that libraries must double as unaccredited centers for the homeless.  Libraries in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have hired social workers to deal with the homeless and mentally ill patrons. 

Bravo!  I exclaimed when I read about these initiatives.  

But this problem has fallen in the laps of the libraries and should not be their responsibility.  It is terrific that they have stepped up—but what choice do they have?  Why doesn’t the govenment provide  halfway houses, more homeless centers, and even apartments for the homelesss?  Surely the streets–and the libraries–aren’t a good solution!  

What a tragic world! 

Is it Zen? The Case of the Blank Space on Page 127

Finally!  The house is clean. 

I swept 30 or 40 of my books off the table and stacked them on top of a bookcase.  Then I extracted my husband’s dirty sneakers from a sports paraphernalia pile (UNDER THE BUFFET!)  and put them in a laundry basket, along with unidentifiable sports garments.  

Finally I sat down with a book. THIS IS SO GOOD,  I thought as I devoured a short story.  But the story seemed to end abruptly (and sappily) halfway through page 127:  “…he slips in beside her, and in minutes, he, too, is asleep.”  The rest of the page was blank.   Wow!  Terrible ending!   

I flipped the page.  It begins with the end of a sentence, “strident—the sounds of a quarrel.” The beginning of that sentence is missing on page 127, along with a paragraph or two.  And so I will never know what happened between the nap and the quarrel.  It is a printing (or non-printing) error.  

I’ve been here before.  Once I had to take back a Sara Paretsky book because fifty pages were missing in the middle.  Another time I wrote to a publisher because pages were missing from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog.  They sent me a new book.

I won’t bother to write for a replacement of this (mostly) splendid book, because I know I won’t read it again.  

Is this good sense or giving up? 

Mary McCarthy’s “Cannibals and Missionaries”

The brilliant writer Mary McCarthy is perhaps too intellectual and acerbic for today’s American culture, though I would love to have read her take on it.   She is best-known for The Group, her best-selling 1963 novel about a group of women whose lives take different directions after graduating from Vassar in the 1930s. But my own favorite is Birds of America, her scathing satire of American innocence and hypocrisy with the funniest Thanksgiving scene ever.  

Her varied oeuvre, a mix of fiction, essays, and memoirs, fascinates me. This week I read McCarthy’s last novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, a  political novel about terrorism, published in 1979.  Forty years later, it is a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence.  It was billed as a thriller by the publisher, but it is really a psychological novel.  

In Cannibals and Missionaries, terrorists have targeted a small committee of liberals traveling  to Iran to investigate the reputed tortures in prisons in the Shah’s regime.  The members of the committee are mostly innocents who have no idea their mission could take them into danger:  they are Aileen Simmons, the frighteningly loquacious president of an elite women’s college; Senator Jim Carey, who once ran for president but joked so much he was not considered “committed”; Frank, a sentimental minister; Gus, an ancient, fragile, retired Bishop; Victor, a professor (and, we learn later, CIA agent) who brings his cat along for the ride; Sophie Weil, a New Journalist; Cameron, a Scottish professor and Middle Eastern scholar; and Henk Van Vliet de Jonge, a Dutch member of Parliament.  By the way, the two politicians, Jim and Henk, are both poets.

McCarthy masterfully develops their characters while analyzing politics and the psychology of liberals and terrorists. Two  Arabs and a Dutch couple hijack the plane.  When they appear with their guns, only the Senator and Henk understand what must be done to keep the peace.  The  irritating Aileen keeps chatting compulsively and wondering where her meal is. (Some Orthodox Jews are served first with a Kosher meal.) And she is so pissed off that she loudly wonders why their group has been targeted rather than the tour group of millionaire art colletctors in first-class, who also headed for Iran.  And so the terrorists also take the collectors hostage.

The terrorists take the hostages to a Dutch farmhouse. Nothing much happens at first.   McCarthy chronicles the intensity of their boredom: there is nothing to read, and no one can play games all the time.  The Senator introduces them to a match game called “Cannibals and Missionaries” which Navy flyers played in   World War II.  Not surprisingly, when a terrorist plays it he favors the cannibals. 

The flippancy of Charles, a witty, flamboyant elderly gay man who was headed for Iran with the art collectors, even befriends the terrorists.   His reactions to the terrorists’ demands—Holland must drop out of NATO and cancel relations with Israel and they must release criminals from trisons—are hilariious but also thought-provoking.

“It only needs a weensy change of perspective, doesn’t it? A little bird tells me we’re not the enthusiasts for ‘law and order’ we were a few days ago.  It was that interesting third demand that brought it home to me.  Why, my dear, if the whole criminal population of Holland were turned loose…I’d have no objection as long as it meant that I’d be able to journey to Naqsh-i -Rustan with my ears and toes and fingers safely about me….Till today, I’ll confess, I’d tended to look on our penal institutions as a necessay evil.  And, as for the second demand, can we honestly say that it would be a tragedy if Holland were to leave NATO and suspend relations with Israel?  My own answer, I admit, woudl be prejudiced.  As a pacifist, I hold no brief to NATO, and though I’m not unsympathetic to Israel, I feel she could use a little lesson.”

The art collectors are told they will be released if they arrange for their families to deliver some of their most valuable works of art to the terrorists.  A Vermeer painting becomes a symbol both of first world privilege and civiliation, when Helen announces she would rather die than endanger it.

A fascinating, important book for today. 

The Fascination of Diaries

Over the years I have adored reading and writing diaries.  I was thinking about diaries this morning when I came across  Mary Stolz’s In a Mirror on my shelves. Published in 1953,  this “teen” novel is written in the form of a journal. The narrator, Bessie Muller, a junior in college, hopes to understand her life by writing about it.

Stolz was a popular writer of children’s and Y.A. (then called “teen” novels) from the ’50s to the ’80s.  Her novel The Noonday Friends was a  Newbury Honor Book.  Stolz was far from my favorite writer, but she wrote a staggering number of books, which I added  to my stack if I couldn’t find anything else.

  In a Mirror looks quite intriguing, and I have no idea if I’ve read it.    The narrator begins.

To begin with, if you’re going to keep a journal at all, you must be as honest, and must make yourself as clear as your ability and your reservations will allow.  Ideally, you should begin as soon as you learn to write, so as to avoid having to bring things up to date.  Ideally, of course is a word like perfection or eternity—you can say, but not achieve them. I shall need, therefore, having started this, to go back and forth, getting a bit of the present, filling in with a bit of the past.  Keeping a journal must certainly improve my writing.  Perhaps at the same time it will clarify, somewhat, my personal puzzle….  Writing, I guess, is my way, though no doubt I’ll wind up with unresolved sections.  Who will not?

This morning I also made a  list of diary novels I have thoroughly enjoyed, in case this one doesn’t pan out.  One is an actual diary.

1. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Written in the form of a diary, this endearing novel explores Cassandra Mortmain’s  impoverished life in a  castle her father bought on a whim.  He is a blocked writer who now does nothing except read mysteries; Topaz, his wife and Cassandra’s stepmother, is a former model who likes walking nude in the woods at night; Rose, Cassandra’s beautiful older sister, is crankily searching for a husband, but there are no young men in the vicitinity; and younger brother James is an excellent student.  The plot turns comically romantic when a wealthy American family with two adult sons rents a house nearby.  In one scene, Rose is so embarrassed by an ancient fur coat (no one knows what kind of fur) that she hops off a train, runs away, and is mistaken for a bear.

2.  D.E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books, a quartet of interwar novels written in the form of diaries,  Mrs. Tim Christie (known as Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in the UK), Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home.  Mrs. Tim is a British officer’s wife with a terrific sense of humor.  In one of my favorite entries, she discusses fashion: her husband, who doesn’t notice what she wears, obtusely wonders why she needs to own more than one dress.  Family life can be difficult, since the Christies must move around, but Mrs. Tim is always amusing.  In another comical scene, their rambunctious daughter asks embarrassing questions when the colonel’s meddling wife drops in to tea.  (N.B.   The Mrs. Tim books are based on Stevenson’s own diaries, which a friend encouraged her to publish.)

3. Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. This is the actual diary of Bythell, who owns Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, The Bookshop, in Wigtown, which has been designated a Book Town.   Here you’ll get the inside scoop on bookselling. I enjoyed his short, curmudgeonly entries.  

4.  Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man.  The dying hero , Chulkatirin, calls himself “a superfluous man.”  He is courteous, attractive, and well-educated, but contemptuous of society.  (Think of Puskin’s Eugene Onegin.)   Chulkaturin decides to write a diary to analyze his pointless life.   He claims he accomplished nothing and was unloved and superfluous.  He was especially unnerved by his misperception that a  young woman was in love with him, until he noticed her enthusiasm as she danced with another man.  (By the way, scholars adopted Turgenev’s phrase “superfluous man” to describe a popular character type in 19th-century Russian literature.)

5.  Doris Lessing’s The Diaries of Jane Somers consists of two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could…., published pseudonymously under the name Jane Somers.  In the first novel,  Jane Somers,  a middle-aged editor of a women’s magazine, befriends Maudie, a “tiny, bent-over” woman” in her eighties who is the stereotype of a witch.  Jane finds herself helping her out—somewhat reluctantly, because Maudie is cantankerous and even smells bad.  But she learns to respect her, and realizes she is doing things for her she hadn’t done for her mother.  In the second novel, Jane is growing older but unexpectedly falls in love with Richard, whom she encounters literally in the street.

A Month of Weekend Reads:  Margery Allingham, Stanley Middleton, Domenico Starnone, and Meghan Daum

Do you ever stay in bed (or on the couch) and read a book cover-to-cover after an exhausting week?  This is especially enjoyable if your housemate, husband, or other relative agrees to bring you cups of tea at intervals.  (“I’ll make moussaka tonight,” you promise.)  

Here is a month’s worth of short weekend binge reads for the Weary and Worthy.

1. Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Late Pig.  Allingham is one of the four Queens of Crime of ’30s Golden Age Detective Fiction, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh.   In The Case of the Late Pig, published in 1937, Private Inspector Albert Campion investigates the murder of Pig Peters, an obnoxious, unscrupulous man who turns up newly dead five months after his own funeral.   Pig had many enemies, including Albert, who remembers him as a bully at school.  But who was the corpse buried five months ago?  Allingham is a good if not brilliant writer, able to spin an unputdownable plot.  I am a fan of Albert Campion, a wealthy, superficially silly, shrewd detective, not unlike Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey.

2. Stanley Middleton’s The Golden Evening.   There has been a revival of the work of Stanley Middleton, a prolific writer who won the Booker Prize in 1974, as Windmill reissues his out-of-print novels.

In The Golden Evening, the Allsop family is grieving because Ivy Allsop is dying of cancer in the hospital.   Her husband, Ernest, and their two children, Bernard and Mary, feel guilty as she lies in pain in the hospital, but life goes on for them.  Bernard, a graduate student in history, is engaged to a rich, slightly older widow, Jacqueline, who draws him into helping with the foundation of a cultural society.  (Middleton expounds on Bernard’s introduction to modern atonal music.)  Jacqueline insists on being introduced to his mother in the hospital; Bernard agonizes over the decision.  His younger sister Mary , who begins dating an older boy at school, is not sure if he likes her or if she is being used.   At one point Mr. Allsop seems to be cracking up, but somehow they cope.  A quiet, beautifully-written novel about sadness,  gradual acceptance of death, and the joys of life.

3. Domenico Starnone’s Trick.  This Italian novel, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and illustrated by Dario Maglionico, reminds me of Elena Ferrante’s early work (which I prefer to the Neapolitan quartet).  The narrator, Daniele Mallarico, a successful artist, spends a couple of frazzled days in Naples babysitting for his four-year-old grandson, Mario, while his daughter and son-in-law go to a conference.  We feel Daniele’s boredom and exhaustion, and his desperation to  work on illustrations for a Henry James story (his publisher dislikes the ones he has submitted).  Mario demands all his attention.  And Daniele feels competitive with his grandson after Mario proves capable of copying one of Daniele’s illustrations.  Things spin out of control in a manner that is almost Jamesian Gothic when the boy plays a trick.

4. Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything:  My Journey through the New Culture Wars.  I hesitate to write about this short, snappy book about the generational divide, because it is bound to make people angry.  According to Daum, the Baby Boomers were idealistic, Gen X is tough and ironic, and the Millennials and Generation Z are rigid, fragile, and humorless.  The younger generations have been raised on phones and social media, where short messages  without documentation are passed on and believed as “truth” by the “woke.”  Technology has limited their imagination and ability to argue.  Some of Daum’s hypotheses are wild: at one point, she surmises that knowing the baby’s sex before birth has led parents away from the relatively gender-free roles of her own Gen X childhood to a revival of pink and blue, and a pink princess culture for girls which leaves them feeling like victims in need of rescue.  I was appalled ot read that Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock no longer play the college circuit because of students’ dislike of edgy humor,  while other comedians admit they simplify their jokes for the new audience. Daum writes brilliantly, and her theories are fascinating, even though I don’t always buy them.  But the book is exhausting, like watching a car wreck.  

A Neglected Writer: Stephen Dixon (1936-2019)

Stephen Dixon wrote on a typewriter and disliked electronic keyboards.

I like to mix up my reading:  classics, middlebrow, mysteries.   I like to look people in the eye and say I’m reading both The Man without Qualities and a Ngaio Marsh mystery.  It’s a double dare-ya f–k-you kind of pose.  

This weekend I plan to go a different route and revisit the experimental realist Stephen Dixon’s demanding but blessedly spare short stories.

My husband and I are reminiscing about our Dixon fandom, because  he died on November 6  of pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 83. We have read his books for so many years we never realized he was mortal. Dixon has never gotten much attention in the press, though he published more than 500 short stories in The Paris Review and other little magazines,  and two of his books, Frog and Interstate, were nominated for The National Book Award  He wrote 36 novels and story collections, most (perhaps all?) published by small presses.  

Many of Dixon’s short stories are published online.  Here’s the affecting first paragraph of Dixon’s short story “Crazy,” which was  published at Electric Literature in 2015.

I have a dream. In it I’m pushing my wife in a wheelchair on a narrow street in New York. Chinatown, during the lunch hour. Four- to five- story buildings, lots of small restaurants, sidewalks very crowded and people walking fast. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I say to people in front of us. “Better watch out. I don’t want to run in to you.” I’ve no idea where I’m going. I’m just pushing. My wife sits silently, looking straight ahead.

It’s a brilliant story.  I don’t like all of his work equally–but I do like it.  I regret that our public library has none of his books.  (They have in the past.  They apparently discarded them.)

Ave atque vale, Stephen.  And may your work be read.

It’s Dark Outside! Reveries on November Reading

November isn’t the coziest of months.  Jo in Little Women says, “That’s the reason I was born in it.”  

The best way to survive the tenebrous days of November is to sit in a very clean house with a reasonably good book. After you vacuum and dust, you can admire the spotless carpet and the scratched but now polished tables.  And then you can draw the drapes for ultra-coziness, though if they are green velvet or scarlet moreen, you may feel like a tense Scarlett O’Hara  (she must make a dress out of velvet curtains) or Jane Eyre concealed behind the curtains in the windowseat, hiding from her intimidating cousin.

Jane Eyre (Folio Society edition)

Whenever I think of Scarlett O’Hara, I remember my mother, whom I still miss, though I no longer talk to her ghost.  Gone with the Wind was her favorite book, though my once favorite Jane Eyre made little impression on herI don’t much like Gone with the Wind,  which I find poorly-written; she preferred Scarlett to Jane as a character. Of course, my friends and I wanted to marry Mr. Rochester!   (These days, I think Monsieur Paul in Villette might make a better husband.)

The three books above make ideal November reading, but I recently finished another Novemberish novel, Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Trojan Brothers, published in 1944.  The neglected Pamela Hansford Johnson, a popular, well-respected novelist of the 20th century, wrote 27 novels, most realistic and psychological, though some of them are brilliant satires.  She also wrote criticism and autobiography.

The Trojan Brothers is a difficult novel to enjoy. I have seldom felt more edgy while reading a bone-chilling book. Set in the 1920s, it is a fictional study of aberrant psychology.  The hero, Sid Nichols, lives at such a pitch of hysteria that we can feel it tingling on our skin.  

 Sid and his friend Benny are successful comedians:  they play two halves of a talking horse in a popular stage act (Johnson actually makes this act sound enchanting ). Sid, the hind end, is known for making hilarious remarks to the audience.  When he spots Betty Todd, the upper-class cousin who snubbed him in childhood, he confronts her from the stage by subtly insulting her.  (No one else would understand the insults.) Afterwards, she comes backstage with her husband to rebuke and insult Sid.  And yet he masochistically wants to see her again.

How this leads to a love affair is mysterious.  Sid is plain and has ginger hair and freckles, while  beautiful Betty is “like a pierrot doll, very handsome, haughtily amused.” Betty is a social climber, disliked by most people:  she invites famous people to parties, and Sid is her connection to the theater.   As Sid smashes his successful career, and also that of his partner, Benny, in his pursuit of Betty, we realize he is losing his mind.  And it gets worse…  

This well-written novel is interesting, but far from her best.  She has analyzed unrequited love in other novels, and, though painful to read, The Last Resort and The Philistines do a better job.  The Trojan Brothers is so extreme.

How does one cope with November?  By reading cheerful or gloomy books?  

I hope to move on to a cheerful book after The Trojan Brothers.