The Bag Lady of Reference Books: When Covers Fall Off Books

Our English dictionary no longer has a cover.

In times of crisis, I get out my reference books.  There’s always something I want to look up. 

The problem is, I use them a great deal.   Last week the binding of my Greek dictionary snapped when I was desperately looking up an archaic form of an irregular verb.  The roughness with which I attacked the pages knocked the cover right off.  And that, I thought, is why I’d better ditch Sophocles’s Philoctetes for The Odyssey–though I did find the weird verbs, so I should stick to Philoctetes, more appropriate for our time. (Epic is simpler than tragedy:  I am reviving my Greek in honor of coronavirus lockdown.  It’s been five years… )

I asked Mr. Nemo,  “Can you tape this back on?”

“There’s nothing to tape it to.”

“Bummer,” I said.  I like to use old slang I thought silly when it was current.  I started using it recently–a response to Covid-19, I suppose.  I am often “freaked out,”  everything is a “bummer,”  and I am “into” Tylenol and vitamins.  If it weren’t for lockdown, you’d think you were in a  novella where everyone wore platform shoes, read Vonnegut, and listened to Frank Zappa.  

This edition of Horace is held together with tape.

Mr. Nemo got out the super glue, which is a good temporary fix.  At our house, we have trouble keeping the covers on our reference books and, for some reason, poetry books. Part of the problem may be that I carry them in shopping bags from room to room

 The books began to lose their covers in the 1990s, when our most charming cat clawed off the cover of a Webster’s (English) dictionary. She was so sweet we couldn’t be mad.  The covers of our Greek and Latin grammars fell apart on their own; they are bound with scotch tape.  An old edition of Wheelock is held together with duct tape.  

This is not a serious problem, of course.  The pandemic is a serious problem–people are sick, people are dying. 

I’m lucky to have reference books.  Who knows when the libraries will open?

 Some days are better than others.  Hope you’re keeping well.

What Next? Lockdown on a Rainy Day

I long to be outdoors, though it is cold and rainy.  I made it as far as the stoop.

And now  I empathize with the friend who told me, “I’m an indoors person, so lockdown makes no difference.” 

Indoors?  We’re all indoors now.  But she confessed for the first time to being an indoors person the day I knocked at her door at  6 a.m.  We’d planned to take a bike ride in the country.  With great difficulty, I coaxed her out of her apartment.  On the way to the lake, we stopped at a tiny country church.  No idea what denomination, but I was enthralled by the service.  

  Less enthralled, she refused to ride on until she’d smoked a cigarette in the graveyard. “Because I’m an indoors person and I’m outdoors.”

Oddly, standing on the stoop under the awning today, I wanted to smoke a cigarette.   Perhaps I saw too many photos of Karl Ove Knausgaard smoking when I was reading My Struggle last week. 

Everything is boring on a rainy day when there’s nowhere to go except the convenience store.  So here are some things I’ve tried.  And I’m sure you’ve tried them, too.  What next?

A London policeman confronting a woman about sitting on a bench outside rather than exercising.

Want to watch a cabin fever video?   This strange video was filmed by a woman who was confronted by the London police for sitting on a park bench. They said she had to exercise if she were outdoors, and she said she was mentally exercising.  Now that’s cabin fever. 

Want to go to the movies? Sure, sit down in your living room and watch one.  Why is it not the same?  We have  treats (one chocolate egg each), and we enjoyed the comic film we picked,  Local Hero.  But the whole event, such as it was, seemed drab.  It’s rainy!  We want to go someplace besides Target! 

How about TV?  I’ve watched everything, including the excellent new season of Ozark, the bookstore comedy,  Black Books,  and the Modern Family finale… and now there’s nothing left.

Sew a mask?  I broke down and ordered one on Etsy. But if it becomes the fashion, I’ll host a sewing bee. And not virtual… it will have to be a circle of two, maybe three.  And somebody has to know how to sew.

Knit blankets for the Animal Shelter?  My own knitting is erratic, so I love the animal blankets you get when you adopt a pet.  I use an especially pretty one as a doily. Surely a little pet blanket would be easier to knit than the tea cozy I once made.

Write a dystopian coronavirus novel?   Dystopian novels are  banned at my house, because they seem too real nowadays.  But it will keep you busy if you’re imagining the worst.  Just open a notebook and write.  

Bake bread?   I used to picture myself as an Earth mother.  Alas, I don’t bake bread or read the Whole Earth Catalogue.   But last week I made chocolate chip cookies, which anyone can make.  And then you dole them out over the week–just don’t weigh yourself ever again..

Paint?  We painted two walls of the bedroom and then took a break.    Ladders, tarps, paint, rollers…  fun, fun, fun. It’s time to finish walls 3 and 4.

Board games? I wish we could go to Barnes and Noble and buy a new game.  Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue:  they’re exhausting.  We could memorize our dictionary, I guess, and improve our Scrabble.  

Transcendental meditation?  Kurt Vonnegut thought it a harmless sop for the middle class, though his wife and daughter loved it, and he admitted they were serene. What’s the harm?   Maybe it’s time for me to sit cross-legged and say a mantra.  I can make up my own mantra, as can any blogger or writer.

Hope you’re feeling well.  AND HOW ARE YOU PASSING THE TIME?  

On Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Nonfiction: Transcendental Meditation & Politics

Years ago, after my husband helped his parents move into a condo, he brought home a boxed set of Vonnegut that had belonged to his siblings.  The girls had, rather touchingly, divided the books and inscribed their names, along with the dates of their graduation, on the flyleaf.   When I came across this set the other day, I intended to read  Breakfast of Champions, but the cover fell off, so so I read Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons instead.  (In case you want to know what the title means, it refers to concepts in his novel Cat’s Cradle.  My post is here.)

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, published in 1974,  is a brilliant collection of essays, magazine pieces, and speeches. And I have to say, Vonnegut’s witty, charming, sometimes indignant and angry nonfiction may be his best work. Vonnegut always sees the larger picture, which is difficult for the rest of us to do.  He is also a moralist, but not in a way that interferes with the pleasure of reading. 

In my favorite essay, “Yes, We Have No Nirvana,” he manages to be both sympathetic and sarcastic about Transcendental Meditation.  His wife and eighteen-year-old daughter practiced it enthusiastically, so he investigated it for Esquire in 1968.   At the Maharishi’s  press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vonnegut finds the Maharishi likable, even adorable, but does not believe in the technique.  He notes its appeal to celebrities like Mia Farrow and the Beatles, and the astounding publicity and media attention. While Vonnegut was in Cambridge, Mia Farrow was initiated by the Maharishi in his hotel room; Vonnegut notes that his wife and daughter “had to make do with a teacher in the apartment of a Boston painter and jazz musician who meditates.”

Like Vonnegut, I was unwilling to pay money for a mantra, and some of my friends walked out of the lecture in disbelief when they learned they had to pay. According to  Vonnegut, who deems himself “too lazy” to  meditate, one must first attend boring lectures, be interviewed by the meditation teacher, and then bring gifts of fruit, flower, and a fee to the teacher to complete the process and get a mantra.

Vonnegut thinks it is harmless but  a sop for the middle class.  He writes, “This new religion (which-is-not-a-religion-but-a-technique) offers tremendous pleasure, opposes no institutions or attitudes, demands no  sacrifices or outward demonstrations of virtue, and is risk free.  It will sweep the world as the planet dies–as the planet is surely dying–of poisoned air and water.”

So much of the charm of this collection has to do with Vonnegut’s style and quirky criticism.  In “Excelsior!  We’re Going to the Moon.  Excelsior,” he expresses cynicism about the importance of  the moon landing and believes the money could be better spent on cleaning up “the smoke and the sewage and trash”  on Earth  and disposing of military weapons.  In “Why They Read Hesse,” he writes about the romantic appeal to the young of Hermann Hesse’s romantic novels, which became best-sellers  in the ’60s and ’70s. 

 Let me leave you with a quote from one of the best essays,  “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself”(Harper’s Magazine). Vonnegut imagines the thoughts of visitor from another planet on  the American people in 1972.

“The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this.  They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead.

“Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners.  When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain:  Winners will win.

“The Democrats have been the larger party in the past–because their leaders have not been as openly contemptuous of Losers as the Republicans have.

“Loser can join imaginary parties.  Losers can vote.”

Really glad I read this book.  A great way to rediscover Vonnegut.

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!