The Distractions of Someone Else’s Marginalia

Someone else’s marginalia

This has been a challenging spring. Veering off sidewalks for social distancing, searching for masks suddenly recommended by the CDC,  and sacrificing civil liberties to stay home and stop the virus from spreading (as well as we can).

Terrified and saddened by the news, I have avoided reading even novels about the plague, with the exception of 150 pages of Connie Willis’s award-winning SF novel, Doomsday Book.  In this absorbing book, the heroine time-travels to a Plague year in the 14th century.  I may return to it later–much later.  

Reading ancient literature  is a distraction from the pandemic. I recently finished Cicero’s  First Philippic against Marcus Antonius, one of fourteen speeches against Mark Antony.  I adore  Cicero, but may I just say, I am not quite sure which side I am on here.   Antony is much sexier, at least in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which does make him more interesting, and though  Cicero is brilliant, and often endearing in his letters, he has no sex appeal, which shouldn’t matter at all.   I do imagine he would be  the kind of person you’d love to gossip with at parties.

And it doesn’t help that Cicero spends the first four pages of the speech making excuses for his  absence from the senate from June to January. (He had fled Rome.).  But he takes advantage of Antony’s rare absence from the senate to imply that Antony is not ill at all.  And, damn, he is effective!   

Here’s the thing.  The Fourteenth Philippic, which I read less summer,  is much more exciting. The First is far from his best work.   

 I was also distracted by faded penciled marginalia in this  1952 reprint of a 1926 Latin edition.  I spent a lot of time deciphering this student’s notes.

Most of his/her notes are elementary, but the handwriting is so beautiful I kept thinking it mght be useful. Well, no, but:  “Father-in-law” she scrawls, with a line pointing to the Latin word socero.  She circles last and first syllables of  words that belong together.  Above a perfect infinitive (influxisse) in the middle of a line, she wrote what looks like  “Laura.”  I decided she meant “dawned,” but it still looks like Laura

I don’t usually buy books with marginalia, but this one turned up at a sale, and I do think the introduction and commentary are brilliant.  In the preface, the editor J. D. Denniston expresses ambivalence about Cicero.

Some readers will think I have done less than justice to Cicero, as a man and as a statesman.  I admit that he was in many respects an attractive person, a pure liver in a licentious age, and an unusually honest provincial governor…  He has been unfortunate, not doubt, in bequeathing to posterity a correspondence which has furnished so much of the evidence against him.

I love Cicero, the most brilliant writer of his time, but he can be exasperating.  

Don’t start with the First Philippic.

Croatian Literature: Vedrana Rudan’s “Mothers and Daughters”

Family relationships are fraught as our parents age.  Relatives quarrel about eldercare:   home care, assisted living, nursing homes, and other options.

All this came back to me when I read Mothers and Daughters, a  brilliant, angry, unflinching novel by the Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan. (Will Firth is the translator.) 

Rudan interweaves vivid scenes of the narrator’s daily life with commentary on family, mother-daughter relationships, and eldercare.  The narrator, the successful owner of a shop that sells hand-carved wooden angels, wishes her mother would die.  She feels constantly guilty, though her mother is in “the best nursing home in  Croatia.”  She dreads visits to the home, an attractive building located on a hummock in a park, because her mother constantly complains about pain and says she needs pain pills.  Her mother also refuses to walk to the restaurant for meals or use the bathroom (she wears expensive diapers).  The nurses assure the narrator that her mother is perfectly fine, and say  she is play-acting.  One detail particularly struck me:  her mother complains that it hurts being bathed. 

I remember my own mother refusing one day to go with the aides to be bathed.  They gently pulled her out of the chair, which appalled me, and told me she faked sickness when it was bath time.  She had always loved baths, so I found this quite disturbing. I assured her I would wait for her while she bathed. 

I was particularly struck by the narrator’s observations after her mother’s death.

I regret that I don’t know how my mom smelled, I’ve always felt guilty because I’ve looked on her as if she was your mother, not my own.I didn’t stroke her gray hair, but I should have, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t pat her white, bony shoulder, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t look into her bleary eyes, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother…How can you talk with a mother you don’t love?

 Rudan describes the unlikable narrator’s pain over her dysfunctional parents with more rage than I’ve seen in a book in a long time.  And yet we relate to her.  “When did I first think that the only good father was a dead father?”  

A brilliant, if bleak, novel about age, memory, family, and death.

The Plague Notebook: The New Agoraphobia & Plague Comfort Reading

Staying home is “the new normal.”  I hear this often, though I wonder if it mightn’t be more proper to call it “the new norm.”   I admit,  the more genteel phraseology lacks the cuteness factor.  Let us be cute, because we must deflect our thoughts from Covid-19.

The new at-home culture feels like a footnote to an imaginary old-fashioned era, where towns were smaller, people stayed home and read  Book of the Month Club books, and shopped in their own neighborhood. Bustling came into fashion later.  Actually, some have always preferred staying home to bustling. 

And at least people can stay home without being labeled agoraphobic.

On the agoraphobic front, I am DYING to get out of the house. (What an unfortunate phrase!)  One bookstore has curbside service, but  I am reluctant.  Would we wear gloves and a mask for this delicate curbside transaction?  Do the booksellers have any protective gear? And isn’t the point of bookstores going into the bookstore?

Every time I get the urge, I remember the ice cream store the day before lockdown. Nobody was practicing social distancing at that point. 

WHAT WE’RE READING:  Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards.  This brilliant time-travel novel novel is a  well-written  journey to the Middle Ages during the Plague.  In 2053, Kivrin, a medieval history student at Oxford, plans to visit a village near Oxford in the early fourteenth century.  She is mistakenly transported into England during  a Plague year (1338).  And at the other end of “the drop,’  the tech who operated the computer is stricken with a highly contagious respiratory illness.  

Believe it or not, reading a science fiction novel about the plague is both informative and  emotionally a comfort read.  Fiction helps us in very strange ways. 

And it is timely and pertinent.  Mr. Dunworthy, a history professor, must soothe a group of American bell-ringers who are at Oxford when the quarantine is imposed.  They are furious because they have a concert schedule.  He says,

“I will be more than happy to phone the cathedral and explain–“

“Explain!  I’m not used to having my civil liberties taken away like this.  In America, nobody would dream of telling you where you can and can’t go. “

And over thirty million Americans died during the Pandemic as a result of this sort of thinking, he thought.  “I assure you, madam, that the quarantine is solely for your protection…”

Let’s hope it won’t come to that!

The Plague Notebook:  How to Be Happy

How to be happy isn’t really my field.  How not to be anxious is my  area of expertise.

Anxiety stings all of us in this time of the virus, but there are healing  balms. For instance, it is National Poetry Month, and it is delightful to read a poem a day, even though it might not cure all our dark thoughts.   My favorite American poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in my hardcover copy of her Collected Poems,  there is still a  flower pressed on the page of my favorite poem, “Recuerdo..”

Here is the first of the three stanzas of “Recurerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon


Edna St. Vincent Millay, ’17

 I cannot tell you how remarkable and romantic I found this poem.  Emotionally I knew just how she felt, though I had never had the opportunitiy to ride back and forth all night on a ferry.  I concluded that I lived in the wrong part of the country for that romantic gesture, and would have to move to New York (which turned out to be very expensive, unless I wanted to live in a meatlocker). In the midwest I have happily ridden in a canoe, a rowboat (“Put your backs into it, lassses!”),  and a paddleboat.  None of these experiences belonged in poetry. 

After a non-poetic mini- breakdown  today,  I  went out to look at the gibbous moon.  It must be the first time I’ve looked at the moon since last fall.  There it was, glorious, pocked and shining.  “If only we could go to the moon,” I said, but Mr. Nemo reminded me, “We already have.” “No,  don’t mean that, I mean us. ”  But he was right:  this was our trip, gazing at a gibbous moon in a clear blue sky.

Actually, I feel claustrophobic just thinking about space travel, though Mr. Nemo assures me it would take only about four days. That doesn’t sound so bad, but wearing a space suit might be.  

Earth has plenty of compensations, after all.  “Who but God could make that rainbow?”  a woman once dreamily asked while we sheltered inside HyVee waiting for the rain to stop.  The rain drizzled to a stop, and an  incredible rainbow suddenly arched above the hill.  For a moment I understood what she meant about God.

That’s how I feel about the moon, actually. Who made that gorgeous thing?  But I’m not sure which god, if it was a god.  It was doubltless born out of chaos, like the Earth and the sky in Ovid’s creation myth , but I’d have to check to see where the moon comes in.  Anyway, the goddess Artemis/Diana is associated with the moon.  I’ll have to settle for her role, since I’m too tired to check my Metamorphoses.

I wonder, however, what god would bring a plague.  Actually, gods do behave badly in myths, and quite often they are unreasonable and violent in the Bible.  

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S. during our more-or-less month of lockdown.  You do your daily routine, and then you panic. It’s as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. The day turns sour when you listen to the governor’s daily  Coronavirus update.  You are horrified by the escalation of  cases of infection  and the death toll.  We cry and feel angry and indignant.

But there is one endless source of joy.   Exercise! It makes all the difference. Going outside, whether to pace or take a walk or run is therapeutic, because, believe me, being  trapped indoors worsens the sense of helplessness.  And if you prefer to stay home, do stretching exercises for at leas 10 minutes.  It helps.  My shoulders have been very sore:   I wouldn’t miss my workout for anything.  It gets all the kinks out of my tense muscles.

This is a challenging time,  different from anything I’d anticipated.   I thought people would face more virulent illnesses and violent storms by 2030, the arbitrary date for the end of possibility for  climate change reversal.  Surely these topics will be addressed on Earth Day, April 22, though obviously it will be idone ndoors.  And let us hope we are much closer to finding  a cure to Covid-19. then  

Cheers!  This will pass.

Stay well!

The Best of Autofiction:  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle

Remember the “Me Generation”?  I do, just barely.  In 1976 Tom Wolfe wrote a cover story about the “The Me Decade,” and Baby Boomers were known, if briefly, as the “Me Generation.” 

Nobody likes a narcissist, hence the ambivalence toward autofiction, which knows no generational divide. (We are all “me.”) Of course Proust and Norman Mailer wrote autofiction before the term was coined, but Karl Ove  Knausgaard is the sovereign of autofiction. And though most critics love Knausgaard’s six-volume masterpiece, My Struggle, some are indignant because Knausgaard (a GenXer) changed no names in his detailed account of his life and relationships. 

I had no clue what autofiction was when I began to read it.  Immediately I was intrigued by the fast-paced novels.   Knausgaard is sharp, observant, absorbing, mercurial, likable, and unbelievably fun to read.  And the narrator Karl Ove is a sympathetic, likable character, though he has some exasperating characteristics.  Oddly, I am reminded of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, not because Knausgaard writes on a large scale–it is utterly personal–but  because he draws you into his personal novels in the same indefinable way.  

It matters very little which volume you begin with, because the books are not chronological.  In the first book, we meet narrator Karl Ove as an adult, balancing writing, relationships, and child care.  I posted about it at my old blog here.

I just finished Book 4, set in the 1980s, when  Karl Ove, 18, takes a job as an assistant teacher in a tiny fishermen’s village. He doesn’t take teaching seriously, and plans to stay only one year.   Determined to be a writer, he got his start as the music critic for a small newspaper when he was still at gymnas (secondary school).  And now he spends weekends writing  short stories. The trouble is: alcohol. 

Is Karl Ove an alcoholic?  He has a charming personality, and makes friends easily.  But he drinks so much at parties he has blackouts.  He doesn’t consider this a problem, and is furious when he oversleeps and the headmaster comes to his house to wake him up for work. Karl Ove thinks missing work because he is hungover is a man’s choice.  Knausgaard also writes of Karl Ove’s years at gymnas (high school), when he also loved being drunk, and drank so much he allowed friends to trash his mother’s house.  All signs of alcoholism…

He also constantly broods about sex.  If only he could get a girlfriend…

All right, perhaps there are too many  drinking scenes and and brooding-about-sex scenes.  At the same time, life is repetition, and the repetition  here is a simulation of  real life.  That is the way we live: repetition.  And these are great books.

Becoming Your Masked Overly-Protective Mom

They lost me at “PLEATS!”

Now is the time to become your overly-protective mom. 

“Have you got your gear?”  I call out to Mr. Nemo.

He does, though every day there’s something new.  The CDC has announced that all Americans should wear masks in public.

I’ve heard for weeks that the stores are sold out of masks.  If that is the case, where do we get them? Back in the day, Mom would get in the car and drive to Sears, Montgomery Ward, or Kmart for every last-minute need–even during flu season. Everyone is woefully unprepared for Covid-19.

I read in the newspaper that women volunteers are sewing masks for the health care workers. The techs and nurses in the Covid-19 test drive-thru seem to be wearing astronaut costumes, but my heart stopped with worry when I saw them.  They are  our heroes, and if anyone needs masks, they DO.

But now  I am expected to sew masks.  My God, am I Little House on the Prairie?  Should I risk my life at Hobby Lobby to buy needles and thread?  And am I supposed to tear up sheets with my teeth?  

 Mom and I didn’t sew, and despised the jumper I was forced to make for home ec.  We–Mom, Grandmother, and I working together — got a B.  And then went to Sears and bought an adorable readymade one.

Do you ever feel you can’t disinfect another doorknob?  And are you ditzily squirting Disinfectant of the Day (Windex or Clorox or whatever is in the cupboard)  on faucets, handles, tables, light switches, or whatever is in sight at the moment?  

I run a (reasonably) tight lockdown, but excuse me while I dump out my drawers to see if I can find a needle and thread. 

Let’s hope the stores get a shipment of masks.

Nostalgia for the Common Cold

For years we were beleagured by the common cold.  We caught them often when we were students, and later in our teaching days.  There is no question:  students are grubby.  A friend in high school  once cracked me up by saying, “If you’re doing it right, you don’t have to wash your hands.” In those days we rinsed our hands cursorily, but the powdered soap in restrooms didn’t come into play much until college (“It abrades our hands!”).  And washing hands didn’t become a serious thing  until the signs saying EMPLOYEES MUST WASH THEIR HANDS cropped up in every public restroom.

At a converted depot some years ago,  we read our first sign about singing “Happy Birthday” twice while you wash your hands.  We washed our hands thoroughly, though not for two rounds.   And then a few years ago, I  began to take fewer long bike rides, mainly because of sanitation issues in the few public restrooms on the trails.  Am I a sissy or simply a seer?

Can you be nostalgic for the common cold?  The common cold is grim , but it is preferable to Covid-19–and there’s no comparison, I know.  And yet there’s no cure for the common cold, just as there’s none for the coronavirus. In Carolyn See’s literary apocalyptic novel, Golden Days (which I wrote about here), the heroine’s best friend  impatiently taps her fingers on the nose of a man with a cold, and the snot flies out. He is cured.   I once tried tapping my sinuses once, but it didn’t work.  Where are the magic healers

Who gets a cold in literature?  I wonder.

In the  modern era, we turn to anicent measures:  we combine Seneca’s stoicism (“Avoid the crowd”) with old-fashioned medical advice (“Wash your hands”).

Let’s all stay well and practice social distancing!

Pestilence Pots, Literary P.I.s, & Sara Paretsky’s “Dead Land”

“Carriers are all we can be! La di da di de-e-e!”

Oh my God, not another family of pestilence pots!

And, yes, they’re barreling right toward you, without a thought of social distancing.

They put everybody at risk, by wrongly thinking they are immune, and not worrying that their children may be carriers (or become infected themselves).  

Perhaps a restriction on “family hours” would help.  Meanwhile, we can’t give them the peace sign, because they’re ignoring the health of the citizens of Planet Earth.

WHAT TO READ.  Are you a fan of P.I. fiction?   During the plague, I recommend losing yourself in a good detective novel.  The award-winning Sara Paretsky has a brilliant new novel, Dead Land, the nineteenth in the V. I. Warshawski series.

 V.I. Warshawski is a Chicago lawyer-turned-P.I., with a social conscience as well as detective skills.  She embarks on chilling adventures as she investigates violent crimes that are often linked to corporate corruption.  V.I. is far from ladylike:  she goes running with her two big dogs, which she shares with her 90-year-old neighbor, is an amateur climber, and seems to know everything about street fighting and guns.  Paretsky’s descriptions of V.I’s  legwork, risky interventions, and investigations of the rich and powerful  will transport you completely into this well-plotted mystery.

In the opening chapter,  V.I. and her goddaughter, Bernie, a university soccer star,  encounter a homeless woman who is playing a haunting song on a toy piano.  Bernie recognizes this woman as Lydia Zamir, a classically-trained musician whose songs about social issues were very popular wth the young, until Lydia disappeared four years ago after her Latino husband was killed in a mass massacre at a music festival in Kansas. 

V.I. connects Lydia’s  plight to two murders and the redevelopment of a park on the South side of Chicago. V.I. also takes a dangerous trip to Kansas, Lydia’s birthplace, after Lydia disappears a second time.   Plain,  brisk writing, and an unputdownable plot.

If you have other P.I. novels to recommend, I want to know!