A College for Lost Souls: Elisabeth Thomas’s “Catherine House”

I did not mean to read science fiction this month.  I am wearied of the way it has seeped into our lives. On a recent bicycle trip, I was ready for the apocalypse. I took not only a bottle of water, but sanitizer, a mask, wipes (originally makeup wipes), allergy pills, Tylenol, an extra sweater, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, and Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, Catherine House.  I was ready for…the suburbs?

I read a bit of Sanditon, which is charming, and then I started Catherine House, a fast-paced, entertaining, odd little book, which I may  have confused with  another new novel which I think was compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

It is true that Catherine House is a college novel, albeit portrayed through a lens of SF and horror.  Thomas has a knack for spare, muted sentences that create the perfect unobtrusive background for a sinister plot.  The narrator, Ines, a first-year student, has a brooding presence and is not entirely enchanted with the school; cynicism keeps her cognizant of the director’s dangerous charisma.  On the other hand, she feels lucky to have  been accepted at any college, let alone Catherine House, an exclusive three-year college famous for its research on a substance called “plasm.”  All of the students consider themselves lucky to be there, to the point that they don’t worry about the college’s cult-like culture.   They agree not to leave campus until after graduation, and are denied the internet, TV, newspapers, and magazines, and contact with their families.  

Ines skips classes–she is not particularly academic–and devotes her time to drinking too much, blacking out, and having lots of sex (why doesn’t anyone in these books get STDs, I mused). She is disturbed by mandatory sessions of chanting led by the director and enhanced by plasm, given in the form of acupuncture needles.  When her plasm-obsessed roommate, Baby, a brilliant but nervous girl who eccentrically picks locks to relax, is found dead, Ines wonders what happened.  But somehow she can’t follow this line of thought, because there is nothing for her out in the world.

Several of Ines’s friends have doubts about Catherine House, but also have nowhere to go.  And one sees there’s a pattern in the student population.  

This novel is not perfect–the plot falters a bit near the end– but it is an enjoyable little novel.  It’s not Donna Tartt:  I call it “Wuthering Heights meets Enid Blyton and Frankenstein.” But this will be fun for fans of SF/fantasy college novels like The Magicians by Lev Grossman and Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko.  It especially reminds me of the latter.

The Plague Notebook: Groceries, A Hit to Comedy, & What I’m Reading

The Mature People’s Shopping Hour, obviously snapped before masks were recommended.

Everybody’s got it.   The plague.  The virus.  Even Dr. Anthony Fauci is in self-quarantine.

I had the sniffles the other night, but then I always feel sick after going to the grocery store. In our masks, we feel like extras in a remake of  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There was no sanitizer to wipe down the cart, so my husband gave me one of his gloves.  It reminded me of the scene in Little Women, where Jo and Meg  each wear one clean glove and carry one stained glove at a dance.  (Jo had spilled lemonade on her gloves, if I remember correctly.)  We each wore one glove, but this was sanitation etiquette, not party manners.

I would rather shop during  “mature people’s hours,” 7-8 a.m., but Mr. Nemo thinks we’re not “mature” enough.  Also it’s too early in the morning.   I imagine it would dispel the general anxiety and paranoia of being in a crowd, though.  Most people during regular hours wear masks, but some do seem to be maskless and ill.  (Perhaps they don’t have anyone to shop for them.) And of course the “mature” are better at self-distancing than the young, who surmise (falsely) from the news that only old people with underlying health conditions will suffer and die.

 PROCEED WITH CAUTION, EVERYBODY. 

N.B.  I don’t have the virus.  It’s allergy season.  Splendid!  

SO WHAT’S NEW ON THE BOOKISH FRONT?  I was so bored one afternoon that I made a book video (one minute, 46 seconds, and too long at that!). Oh, so that’s what I look like, I thought, curiously without mortification.  I can weather the most fantastic changes and not care, a gift from the Three Fates, or possibly the Muses.

What inspired me to make a video was the boredom of lockdown TV.  Comedy especially has taken a hit now that all the comedians are talking to each other from different rooms:  it’s like watching Hillary in 2016, trying desperately to connect.   But kudos to Parks and Recreation, which did a kind of virus-education fund-raiser–and ended up showing Leslie how to make a group video phone call.  Now that’s information we might actually need. 

I AM SURE YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT I’M READING.

In progress:  Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor, the third in the award-winning Book of the New Sun quartet. Folio Society recently published a Limited Edition of this science fiction classic.  I have a paperback.

Jane Austen’s Sanditon.  Now that I’ve watched the last season of  Homeland (what will I do without Carrie?), I’m turning to the Masterpiece drama Sanditon.  I may already have read an old edition of Sanditon, finished by “Another Lady,” or perhaps that was Lady Susan!  Anyway, it was long ago.  But Jane Austen, finished or unfinished, is always a pleasure.

American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Sa (1876-1936).  This collection of autobiographical stories and selected poetry of Zitkala-Sa, a member of the Yankton Dakota,  is beautifully-written and absorbing.  I am especially impressed with the account of her experiences at a missionary boarding school in Indiana, where well-meaning teachers proved to be racist.  Why have I never heard of her before?  This is one of the books in the excellent Modern Library Torchbearers series.

AND I HOPE SOON TO READ Love, Anger, Madness, a Haitian triptych by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  According the the book jacket, “this stunning triptych of novellas vividly depicts families and artists struggling to survive in Haiti under terrifying government oppression. “

Stay home, stay safe, and ignore the politicians!

When People Love Movie Stars Too Much

Ashton Kutcher

Some people love movie stars too much.  Take Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa.  We were gobsmacked when she proudly announced during a daily coronavirus update that  her “friend Ashton Kutcher” had recommended a Utah company to manage Iowa coronavirus test results. She awarded TestUtah a no-bid $26 million contract to establish the TestIowa program–without consulting any Iowa experts. 

Naturally, many of us were shaken by the decision, even before we learned the Utah company was under investigation. Much as we like Ashton Kutcher, an actor from Cedar Rapids, he is not exactly Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institue of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Does Kutcher have a medical degree or a background in science? No, he has a friend at the company. Mind you, I do not blame Kutcher. You know whose responsibility it is? Kim Reynolds, who has made bad decision after decision during her governorship and today reopened Iowa for business, even though the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths rises every day.

Not surprisingly, TestIowa has proved incompetent.  There have been botched test results, and many people have reported to the Des Moines Register that they have been waiting up to two weeks. One nurse said  she was tested on April 25 and still hasn’t learned the results.  Reynolds’ spokesman (somebody had to take the fall!) admitted that some samples were  “potentially damaged.”   

Kim Reynolds has endangered the health of Iowans.  I have five words for her:  Keep it in your pants!  That is a metaphor:  I don’t mean to suggest she had relations with her crush.

And I have two words for Iowans: Impeach Kim!

Stay safe, stay home, and ignore the politicians.

Atlan, the Fates, & Pandemic Wars

First, what am I reading?

I have just finished Jane Gaskell’s Atlan, Book 3 of the Atlan quintet, a fantasy cult classic series that is a feminist answer to Game of Thrones. Gaskell skillfully employs tropes from myths, fairy tales, Shakespearean comedy, lyric poetry, and even “The Perils of Pauline.”  The plot elements are jumbled up to delightful effect. 

Written in the form of an engaging diary, this lively series delineates the spellbinding adventures of Cija, whom we first meet as a haughty princess in a tower who has been brought up to believe she is a goddess and that men are extinct.  She is delighted to learn men exist, but is surprised to be taken hostage by a blue scaly man, General Zerd, whose army has invaded her mother’s country.  She attempts in vain to assassinate Zerd, dresses up as a boy to evade him, has a reluctant affair with an attractive man who unfortunately turns out to be her half-brother, and attempts to save Atlan, a Paradisiacal continent that all the armies of her world want to occupy.  Yes, there are referecnes to Atlantis.   And there’s more, always more action!

In Atlan (Book 3), a more mature Cija finds herself the empress of Atlan, stormily married to Zerd, who has conquered the beautiful continent and become emperor.   When another war starts, he packs her off with her baby and some servants, but they are attacked en routes by wolves (who become magical allies) and then enemy soldiers.   Cija escapes to an inn where she becomes a scullery maid. And the inn is home to some rough characters:   bandits, buskers, and beggars  spend the winter there, until the thaw, when they go back to their prosperous business. So many adventures…I can’t recount them all…but it is the tone of Cija’s observant writing, witty, moody, and sometimes poetic, that keeps us going. 

PANDEMIC HORROR  I have always known that the Three Fates are not nice women, but I never imagined that they would cut the  life thread of  a security guard at a Dollar Store for saying masks must be worn in the store.  (He was shot to death.) That was in Michigan, one of the most beautiful states i have ever visited.

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”

What a gorgeous state, forests, lakes, islands…

What a pity....

“The Three Fates,” by Giorgio Ghisi (1520-82)

A Neglected Fantasy Classic: The Cats Like Jane Gaskell’s “The Serpent”

My cats love a good  book.  They have been raised on E. Nesbit, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saki, and W. Somerset Maugham.   Perhaps they enjoy books because they wonder what we’re reading–it looks like a dull pastime to them. Anyway they are enraptured when we read aloud. During the pandemic, the cats and I are making our  way through Jane Gaskell’s Atlan saga, one of my favorite fantasy series.  

Here’s what I wrote about the first book in the Atlan series, The Serpent, a few years ago.

In the 1970s, I began to read SF/fantasy. Although I did not care excessively if an SF classic was written by a man or a woman, I wondered, Where are the women?  There was Ursula K. Le Guin, and I enjoyed the dragons of Anne McCaffrey,  but who else?  Surely there were others.

And then a writer at Ms. magazine praised Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, published in 1963 in the UK  and in 1977 in the U.S.  And this strange little feminist fantasy, the first in Gaskell’s Atlan series, changed my idea of the genre’s limits.

The Serpent is witty, unpredictable, and erotic.  Told in the form of a diary, it records the observations and adventures of the heroine, Cija, a clever princess who loves to write. She lives in a tower swarming with nurses, and has no idea of history because her mother, the Dictatress, has told her that men are extinct.  One day a huge person with blue scales and a deep voice climbs up the  tower and chats with Cija, laughing when Cija claims she is a goddess.  Cija assumes this person is just a huge woman. Later, when her mother admits that men exist, Cija doesn’t make the connection.  She is too exhilarated.

But men are extinct!  Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?”  Was wildly, wildly excited.  Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.

“Darling,” said the Dictatress gravely, “for reasons of our own your nurses and I, purely in your own interests of course, have misled you as to the facts in the world outside your tower….  As many men exist as women.”

Politics and prophecies of doom:  that’s why Cija has been stuck in a tower. General Zerd, it turns out, is the blue scaly person, and he has taken over their country and is taking Cija as a hostage.  Cija is very cross, though thrilled to be out of the tower. She cannot imagine how she, a goddess, could be a hostage.  And travel with the army is uncomfortable.  On the road, her nurse Ooldra tells her she it is her fate to seduce and assassinate Zerd to save her country.  But Cija barely knows what a man is.

Does the plot sound too complex?  You just ride with it.

Cija’s diary is sprinkled with comical reflections and lush lyricism, and it also has feminist subtexts (nothing too obvious).

As for the seduction of  Zerd, that does not go very well.  Women find Zerd attractive, but she doesn’t get it.  As she says, he is not “pretty.”

And then one day she sees him half undressed and understands.

His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms.  Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!

Cija makes friends (and lovers) with various soldiers, cross-dresses to save her life, rides a large, violent bird (seemingly something prehistoric) and her best friend is Lel, a transgender boy. She has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with a character named Smahil.  She wants to prevent Zerd from invading Atlan, a kind of ideal Atlantis-like country.

Who knew I’d find the concept of a blue scaly man so sexy?  Oddly,  monsters are often sympathetic.  In a later book in the series, Cija has an idyllic relationship with a sentient ape, and it is the most real love she has ever has. There are other monsters in women’s literature:  in one of my favorite books, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban,  a housewife falls in love with a monster who has escaped and taken refuge in her house. And in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, a woman falls in love with an ape she decides to save from her behavioral scientist husband’s experiments.

They are brilliant books, despite the covers!

Under the Weather:  The Lighter Side of Survival

Like many of you, I have felt under the weather  In my case, it is stress.  On a recent afternoon, my closest friend staggered into the kitchen, muttering “Don’t be upset, but I’ve had a slight accident.” 

I would not call it slight.  His face and neck were bloody, one of his eyes was crusted shut with blood, his clothes were torn, and he had several  broken bones. This was from an accident on the bike trail.  Anyhow, we made several  stressful visits to hospitals and doctor’s offices, where visitors are not allowed. I sat outdoors or in hospital atria.

Well, at least we’re all alive and (more or less ) in one piece.

I try to cheer up by doing light reading, inlcuding articles and essays about culture and life-style.  Here are a few links to articles I’ve enjoyed. 

 1. Dennis Drabelle at the Washington Post is recommending light books these days.

Some of us who have time on our hands these days are dutifully catching up with literary masterpieces we’ve neglected until now — books that I think of collectively as ‘War and Mobymarch.’  That’s admirable. But if, like me, you have an itch for vicarious adventure delivered by fiction that is both realistic (no swords, sorcery or time travel) and a cut above the tried and trashy, I say go ahead and scratch it.

2.  Novelist Jennifer Weiner’s wrote an excellent essay in The New York Times, “The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming.”  Much to my astonishment, people now post pictures online of people who do not practice social distancing.

She writes,  “…posting pictures of non-compliers on social media, or calling them out to their faces, is unlikely to help. It might even make things worse. And it comes with risks to groups who are already suffering more than most from the virus and its effects.”

This kind of posting might well be called,  ” Big Brother Meets ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'”

3.  Here is some good news!  The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 shortlist has been announced.

Dominicana by Angie Cru (John Murray/Hachette)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (Picador/Pan Macmillan

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate/HarperCollins)

Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell (Tinder Press/Hachette)

Weather by Jenny Offill (Granta)

4.  And if you need to repair a book, read this article at Book Riot, BOOK REPAIR 101: HOW TO REPAIR A BROKEN BOOK.  

Good Coffee to Go: Reading Gail Godwin and P. G. Wodehouse with Caffeine

Until March 16, 2020, I associated coffee with books.  I got in the habit of drinking coffee while reading when I forgot how to sleep in grad school. The caffeine may not have helped me sleep, but I wasn’t sleeping anyway.  And, natch, I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee since informal lockdown (which, of course, the governor wants to lift now that record numbers of people are sick and dying) . 

It is not as easy as you might think to get good coffee these days.  The poor girl at the coffeehouse is enclosed in a giant flexiglass cube.  In fact, I couldn’t find the gap until she gestured me over to a narrow space above the cash register. 

I needed this coffee to write about books, though.  So this is a catch-up post.

GAIL GODWIN’S OLD LOVEGOOD GIRLS.  If you haven’t read Gail Godwin’s beautifully-written realistic novels about Southern women, now is the time to do so.  Godwin, a writer well-loved by readers and critics, has won the Award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and thrice been  a finalist for the National Book Award.  One of my favorites is The Odd Woman, her novel about an untenured English professor at a midwestern college; the title refers to George Gissing’s famous 19th-century novel, The Odd Women.  

In  her brilliant new novel, Old Lovegood Girls, Godwin tells the engrossing story of  two women writers who become friends at Lovegood College, an elite Southern women’s college.   The book begins at a slight distance from the two main characters–crucial for the introduction of two heroines who experiment with different forms of literary fiction and New Journalism. The  dean  and the dorm mistress  converse about the problem of a suitable roommate for Feron Hood, a student accepted at the last minute. Her uncle, a lawyer, is the grandson of one of the first Lovegood alumnae, and he says Feron needs a safe environment:   she has run away from an abusive stepfather, lived on the streets of Chicago, and then taken a bus to  North Carolina, where she showed up in his office unannounced.

Who would feel at home with Feron?  Finally they decide that charming Meredith Grace Jellicoe, a rich tobacco farmer’s daughter, would be a good match.  And this pairing is in a way like writing a story: the dean and dorm mistress set them on a lifelong course of friendship and storytelling.

Class matters:  you can’t pair a girl from a working-class family shaped by a mother’s alcoholism and stepfather’s violence with a privileged young woman like Merry Grace unless you expect complications. On the surface, everything is fine. Feron likes Merry Grace, but is envious of her background.  Merry Grace is not only from a happy family but is lovely with her honey-gold hair and unselfconsiousness.  Feron thinks enviously: “Everything was contained in her.  As though God, when making her, took great pains to color all of her inside the lines.”

Their mutual love of Chekhov, and Godwin’s own analysis of his graceful style, help us understand the shaping of the Feron’s and Merry Grace’s writing careers. For a creative writing assignment in English class, Merry Grace uses Chekhov’s “Typhus,” the story of a young Russian soldier who becomes ill and infects his sister, as the template of a story she writes about a girl who comes down with influenza in 1918. After reading this, Feron hones her own autographical short story about a middle-aged woman who pours out her problems to a girl on the bus.  But Feron doesn’t begin to write seriously until years later in New York when she sees a short story by Merry Grace in The Atlantic Monthly.  

Godwin’s characterization of their contrasting personalities gives us insight into the anger and haughtiness of Feron, who  prefers house-sitting in New York City to renting an apartment, and writes novels that are retellings of very dark fairy tales.  Sometimes I thought, “Feron, do you have to be so weird?”   Merry Grace, who is the much better friend,  turned out to be the unlucky one in a way: her parents died in the middle of her freshman year, and Merry Grace had to leave school and take over the tobacco business.  Merry Grace is truly supportive of reserved Feron, who is seldom, if ever, there for her, but even Merry Grace is exasperated at one point.  But their correspondence helps them work out their approaches to writing. And Merry Grace’s involvement with a black church while she is researching a freed slave’s invention of a tobacco process is life-changing.  Though Godwin never comes out and says this, it is the African-American women in this Bible study group who are Merry Grace’s true friends. 

In case you’re wondering, Old Lovegood Girls is nothing like Mary McCarthy’s The Group–but brilliant in a different way. Godwin is fascinated by the process of writing, and shows us how it’s done.

I RECOMMEND ANYTHING BY THE INIMITABLE P. G. WODEHOUSE DURING LOCKDOWN.  I recently read a big chunk of Joy in the Morning, a Jeeves and Bertie Wooster novel, at the hospital.  The silly hero,  Bertie Wooster, is dependent on his butler Jeeves for everything, and when his Uncle Percy, for reasons too absurd to explain, insists Bertie must take a cottage in Steepleigh Bumpleigh to facilitate a top-secret business deal, everything that could go wrong  goes wrong.  Bertie’s ex-fiancee, Florence, believes mistakenly that Bertie has become an intellectual (she saw him buying Kirkegaarde at a bookstore–for Jeeves!); Florence’s fiance, Stilton Cheesewright, a policeman, jealously stalks Bertie; and then there is Berite’s writer friend Boko, who is in love with Uncle Percy’s ward, Nobby,  needs Berties’s help.  Very enjoyable!

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