The Existential Covid-19 Sex Question

Things have been crazy in the world. It is not just the Trump fans who deny that Covid-19 exists (“I mean, it’s like chicken pox!”), the shortage of Chunky Monkey ice cream, the paucity of paper towels that are actually made of paper, the anti-vaxxers, the optimistic belief that Sweden’s death-defying-do-nothing Covid strategy has turned everything around  (Don’t believe everything you read), and the eternal Covid question,”Is this the end of sex?”

I do want to address the sex question. Because from my point of view, it is hilarious.

Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking, 2010

Take Carrie Fisher, one of my favorite actors and the author of a very good neglected novel, The Best Awful.  In the HBO documentary of her comedy act, “Wishful Drinking”(2010), she remarks that Star Wars ruined her life. At 55, Carrie was no longer a babe. People complained she was no longer hot. She did not resemble her 22-year-old self playing Princess Leia in the metal “slave” bikini. And yet, because George Lucas owned her image,  there are innumerable Princess Leia posters, dolls, and action figures.  She was constantly confronted with the aging question. She says (this is not an exact quote, but probably close):  “I admit, I go to comic book conventions when I’m lonely.” And at the convention she saw a Princess Leia sex doll.

She has had far worse traumas. When a male friend died in Carrie’s bed, she was shocked and horrified.  Everyone wanted to know if they’d been having sex. She says,  “No, he didn’t die in the saddle.”

And here’s the  line that stays with me. “I haven’t been naked in 20 years.”

Hilarious!  You think she’s just being funny–ha!  You’ll see. Once adorable, though never in Princess Leia’s league, I noticed 10 years ago the skin on my arms and legs was striated from the sun . The lines look like waves of surreal sand.  Sometimes I get lost in them for four or five minutes. And how about sagging breasts? Who wore a bra? Weight gain? Now if only I wanted to go jogging…

Oddly enough, as we age, there are still misunderstandings between the sexes.  A writer whose books I wrote about AT HIS REQUEST emailed me one day to say he was married. Me, too! But wait. Did he think I WAS FLIRTING instead of BOOK-MAD?

At the moment I am reading a biography, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer by Carol Sklenicka.   Adams, an underrated novelist whose short stories appeared in The New Yorker and women’s magazines,  was gorgeous, brilliant, a Radcliffe graduate, sexy (one of her favorite words), and eloquent about women’s love affairs and sex lives. The quote I’m thinking of is from her first novel, Careless Love: “She was tired of screwing, she wanted to make love.”

Alice Adams

Déjà vu!  Really, in our thirties we all felt like this. I was one of a group of divorcees who still looked pretty good, but the quest for love seemed unobtainable. Although we mocked a silly, much-reviled article that claimed “single women over 40 are more likely to be killed by terrorism than to get married,” life was not easy.

There was no Tinder–that dating game must be humiliating! And none of us signed up for a dating service. We wearily dated men our friends knew, men whom they would never have considered dating.  I once went out with an odd little man who collected Pez dispensers–probably even a Princess Leia– but  had no books in his house.  None. Just Pez dispensers. And then he showed up at my apartment with a gift–wait for it–a toaster. I was so appalled that I actually took it out to the dumpster.

My conclusion: Covid-19 will not end sex. Nothing will, no matter what happens.  But I predict you will become fascinated and proud of the surreal lines on your arms.  It’s that, or plastic surgery!

What I’m Writing: Try an Excerpt from My Novel, “The Ovidians”

Fifty-one percent of you are American, thirty-two percent British or Canadian, and the rest, Other.  I also gather that you enjoy reading  bookish posts, but shun anything about Latin poetry.

Though you haven’t signed on for my creative writing, I am posting a page from the first draft of my novel The Ovidians. I thought you might be interested in the description of the lifestyle of radicals of the ’60s and ’70s, and their much straighter children.

Back to my regular blog soon.

From The Ovidians, by Kat

Writing has never been my No. 1 priority. If I hadn’t stolen two of my mother’s Italian leather notebooks, I would never have written a word. If she hadn’t made a scene, I might have returned them. I told her I liked the pretty covers. “You can get a pretty notebook at K-Mart,” she yelled.

There was a lot of yelling at our house. So much yelling.

I often wonder if I’d have made it out of the darkness without the help of Tasha, my best friend Laura’s mother. She took me in when Emma (Mother) dumped me on the porch while I was having a psychotic break. I still feel that grief–desertion.

Tasha’s tall, narrow house was very different from ours. It was furnished with shabby antiques (“heirlooms,’ Laura said), stacks of newspapers everywhere, cups of tea on all the tables, sometimes leaving rings, and, best of all, it was always full of people: Democrats working for McGovern, alternative newspaper writers and editors, Women’s Center volunteers, NUC types–all the radicals. Tasha, who was the managing editor of the Weekly Toke, had a press in the basement. Movable type–pre-Xerox machine. Laura sometimes helped when Tasha was behind.

Personally, I loved the Weekly Toke. It was eclectic and messy: radical editorials on the Industrial-Military Complex, which we never talked about at home; bawdy cartoons; reviews of Bergman films; restaurant reviews; poetry by Tasha and some academics; and even an occasional short story.

There were meetings in different rooms every day, but Tasha rarely attended. She sat at the kitchen table, pouring tea, writing poetry. She could concentrate in a crowd. It was remarkable.

“She has good genes and was raised on a good diet,” said Daphne, who preferred dining on M&Ms to heavy organic grains Tasha served.  I remember the food only in retrospect, because I wasn’t eating at the time.

Daphne lived in the attic, and so did I now. Tasha’s boyfriend teased Daphne that she was Jane Eyre; she informed him bluntly, “And now we have a mad wife there, too.” I thought this witty later, when I understood it. At the time it was meaningless.


Okay, that’s enough!

Notes on Reading: Natalia Ginzburg and John le Carré

I am checking in with reading notes, since I have not kept up with  “reviewing” this month.

As usual, these are not quite reviews.

I recently read Natalia Ginzburg’s two novellas, Valentino and Sagittarius, recently published by NYRB, translated by Avril Bardoni, and John le Carre’s 1974 thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, beloved both of intellectuals and the common readers.   These books are flawlessly constructed, elegantly-written, unflinching, and sharp.   Both writers elucidate abnormal situations that don’t, at first, seem particularly unusual.

Everyone is talking about Ginzburg, a 20th-century Italian writer who has  been rediscovered by publishers and critics in recent years. I very much enjoyed her autobiographical novel, Family Lexicon, and was pleased to receive Valentino and Sagittarius from the NYRB Classics Book Club.

In a way, Ginzburg reminds me of Elena Ferrante, though Ginzburg writes much more concisely than Ferrante. Her portraits of dysfunctional families are anchored by smart, independent women narrators who are not completely unlike Lena in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.

In Ginzburg’s novella Valentino, Caterina, the diffident narrator, lives with her parents and mesmerizingly handsome brother, Valentino.  The focus of family life is her pampered brother, who is vain, lazy, always needs money, and is constantly getting engaged to and breaking up with pretty young women.  When he announces his plans to marry a rich woman he has never mentioned, they are appalled.  His previous fiancees have been gorgeous, so they know he is marrying Maddalena for money. “She’s grotesque,” the mother says.  Clara, the married sister, says she is a pig.  (Really, she’s not that bad.  I liked her.)

In the reliable voice of observant Caterina, who selects and relates the details of the story, the truth of Valentino’s decadent mode of life is revealed. Eventually Caterina, who has a teaching degree, is invited by Maddalena to live with the married couple, and also looks after their children.

At first she is fascinated by her brother’s expensive plumage, i.e., fashionable clothing.  Every night Valentino and Maddalena’s cousin, Kit, dress up to  go to the clubs.  Maddalena says she doesn’t mind Valentino’s womanizing; it is to be expected of Italian men  But their  picture of Valentino is completely inaccurate.  In the end, everything comes down to  family loyalty.

In Sagittarius, the narrator, another dutiful daughter, is, like Caterina,  a teacher. She is annoyed by her mother, who doesn’t have enough to do, and keeps dropping in at her apartment.  When her mother plans to open an art gallery, the narrator is happy for her. But things are hazy:  she met her partner in a coffeehouse, and they spend hours fantasizing about the gallery. Again, the most charming people have secrets and are the most unreliable. In this tragicomedy, there are appalling consequences.

I have always loved le Carre’s thrillers, and decided it was time to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I tried to watch the movie recently and didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Fortunately, the complex novel clarifies everything, as Smiley, a former spy, is recruited from retirement to uncover a Russian mole. And le Carre can really write. I have many academic friends who hate all modern books, except le Carre’s.  I see their point.

Now I must finish watching the movie.  Lots of brilliant, fascinating actors, but I must have missed something crucial when I went to get a cup of tea without pausing.

Below is a photo from the film of Benedict Cumberbatch (a bit rattled from stealing files from spy libraries, as who wouldn’t be?), and Gary Oldman  (a dead ringer for Smiley, who captures his stillness and understated character).

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor

Betty MacDonald & Co.: Write Your Memoir for Laughs!

We all enjoy cheery, witty memoirs.  Everybody loves Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, a hilarious, if despairing, memoir about life on a run-down chicken ranch. Not surprisingly, it was not Betty’s dream to raise chickens. She followed her husband Bob to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  Her mother told her you should always help your husband in his work.  It is clear that raising chickens is not fun. It is clear that Betty is not happy. And yet she stays upbeat in her writing. This upbeat humor outshines the melancholy #MeToo Twitter memoirs any day.

I’m not at all sure this isn’t the best way to write a memoir. Think Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, Jean Kerr, Carrie Fisher, and Louise Dickinson Rich.

The following excerpt illustrates Betty’s uncanny gift for satire.  And I love her exclamation marks.

Aunty Vida took another swallow of coffee, rinsed it around in her mouth as if it were antiseptic, and said, “You have solved the problem of living! You have the answer to happiness! There are thousands of people in this bitter old world who only hope some day to achieve by dint of hard work and sacrifice what you and Bob have now!” It was nine o’clock in the morning. Bob and I had been up since four and had not gone to bed till after twelve. Aunty Vida was just having breakfast. It was that part about others hoping by dint of hard work and sacrifice what Bob and I already had, that got me.

Now if I wrote a memoir, humor would be the way to go. I’m thinking my teen years should be a comic book.

I want to be Betty MacDonald!

How did it all begin?  It was a cold winter day, possibly in the single digits, when my friend and I hitchhiked to the junior high to visit her favorite former English teacher.  We sat on top of the radiator and kicked our boots while my friend’s charismatic teacher gathered her papers together, promising to take us out for cocoa. In the back of the classroom, a polyester-pantsuit-clad teacher lurked, in stark contrast to the rest of us: we wore  bell-bottoms, blue work shirts (possibly embroidered with roses),  and sturdy hiking boots, while she had the look of a dowager who had not discovered natural fabric.  She tagged along to the cafe with us, and stared across the table at me with eyes googling out of an acne-scarred face.

Usually I love book talk, but not about books I haven’t read, books which I have no intention of reading.  Did I like poetry, she asked.  Um, I liked  Richard Brautigan and Sylvia Plath, I muttered.   You must read Anne Sexton, she insisted.  She took a book out of her purse.  Oh, thank you, I said politely, and put it in my knapsack.  And, of course, as one does, I forgot about it.  And that night I got a hysterical phone call from her.  She said,  You hate me now, don’t you?  Now you’ve read my notes and know I’m gay.  Oh, I didn’t see them, I said politely.

I had no intention of reading her book.

I wanted to get back to Hermann Hesse,  Doris Lessing,  Jimi Hendrix, M.C. Escher, Easy Rider, Ingmar Bergman, Baskin & Robbin…

Time passed…

She kept calling me…

I politely had coffee with her…

Eventually, you know…

And then…   Boredom.  Isolation.  Trapped.

I wonder if that’s why I like trapped housewife novels.

Mind you, I was now living in a comic book called “Trophy Girl.”  After school, we made the rounds of her acquaintances. She liked to show me off.  Sometimes we would drop in at the house of the super-smart feminists who never invited her over and clearly disapproved of her relationship with an underage concubine.  It seemed politically incorrect, even rude, to admit how bored I was.  Like it or not, this was my world–for a short time.

I longed for the hilarious company of my own friends, who laughed at Tiger Beat magazine, sang along to the Grateful Dead, joked about boys, baked cookies, hitchhiked to rock concerts, watched Masterpiece Theater, and had a thing about Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (which was constantly being shown at the second-run theater) .  We might not have been super-smart feminists–it never came up!–but I missed them.

She drove a car everywhere.  She listened to Melanie.  She didn’t watch Masterpiece Theater!

It was unspeakable.

At that age you like to be on the go.

I was living–gasp!–with a (sort of) grown-up.

After seeing my friends, I had to returen to the grainy dull black-and-white Peter Bogdanovich film of the “relationship.”  Relationship! Now there’s a word for you!  It wasn’t a courtship, it wasn’t a friendship, it wasn’t a flagship, it wasn’t a lordship, it wasn’t a fellowship–it was  a RELATION-ship!  How very, very, very, very dull.  I have never spoken of boyfriends and husbands in terms of a “relationship.”

I will not dwell on her sexual tastes.  I will tell you she wanted to pee on me in bed, and claimed that her former underage lover had enjoyed such peefests. “Gross!  No!”  One minute you’re dreaming of romance with Mr. Rochester, the next…

Dear reader, I left. Thank goodness!   But where is the narrative here? Everything dissolves into  grainy black-and-white film.   Narrative might exorcise it…  but a comic book would be best.

If only I could draw…

Light Reading Will Save Your Life: Alice Adams’ “Caroline’s Daughters” & Other Bookish Notes

Last week I hurt my neck and shoulder while reading an 800-page book in bed. After aggravating the pain with what I’d thought were therapeutic exercises, I rested, lounged, read shorter books, and lost myself in light reading.

I am cured! Light reading will save your life. Mind you, these are literary light reads.  Over the weekend I read David Lodge’s comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, and then I turned to Caroline’s Daughters, a brilliant, entertaining novel by Alice Adams.

Alice Adams was a well-known, popular San Francisco writer (1926-1999) whose fiction was sometimes published in The New Yorker.  Despite her graceful writing and skillful treatment of serious themes, her books were marketed (you can tell by the covers) to the women’s fiction ghetto. In my opinion, they are literary “pop” fiction, one of my favorite genres (something for everybody). What I find on rereading is great intelligence, a clarity of style, and evocative descriptions of the gentrified neighborhoods and fluidity of class in San Francisco in the ’80’s.

Adams’s Caroline’s Daughters is one of my favorites, a family saga I find unputdownable. Caroline, age 65, wants some distance from her five daughters, one in her 40s, three in their thirties, and the youngest in her twenties. Adams deftly switches the women’s point-of-views from chapter to chapter:  some of the sisters look and sound alike, but they have little in common except innate sexiness. (Adams often uses the word “sexy,” and their sexual relationships are complicated.)

Caroline, who has been married thrice, and is finally happy in her third  marriage, would love to hear less about her daughters’ lives. At the beginning of the novel, she and Ralph have returned to San Francisco after five years in Portugal–a kind of sabbatical to get away from the family. Once  they are home, the family is reunited by a web of friendship, gossip, rivalry, and near-incestous relationships with each other’s men. It wearies Caroline, who just wants to work in her garden, but she continues to nurture.

Sage, 40, is an unsuccessful artist and, in her half-sisters’ view, a throwback to the 1960’s. Sage’s husband, a too-handsome carpenter, is unfaithful and enjoys her failure. But the more badly he behaves, the better her work gets.  Luck can change!

Fiona, a restaurant owner in her thirties, is restless and angry as she watches the popularity of her restaurant fade and has no meaningful relationship with a man.  Jill, 31, is a greedy lawyer-stockbroker with a secret; Liza, 35, is happily married to a psychiatrist and sexually satisfied, but is also a bored mother of three children who wants time to write.   Portia, the youngest, is a bit of an oddball, who house-sits for a living.

This  would be the stuff of soap opera in lesser hands, but  Adams makes it believable, and, in fact you may recognize some of these problems if  you are in your thirties (a challenging time) or older (when it sometimes, though not always, gets better).

Gorgeous writing and mesmerizing plot–some characters are sympathetic, others are not, and you’ll love some, be appalled by others.

THE N.B. COLUMN. Last week I lamented the cancellation of the N.B. column by J.C. (James Campbell) at the TLS. It turns out that N.B. is still there, though by a new columnist, M.C.   J.C. has an inimitable voice, but I also enjoyed M.C.’s column this week: he/she (I’m thinking she, but why?) talks about the Virginia Woolf newsletter, Bloomsbury, and reactions to the Booker Prize shortlist. J.C. wrote the N.B. column for 22 years.

AT THE BAFFLER, Michael Friedrich reviews two books about the meaning of the junk we collect”: Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America by Wendy A. Woolson, and Heart of Junk, a novel  by Luke Geddes. Has anybody read either of these? I’m fascinated by junk and collections, and am thinking about trying one of these books.

The Last Schmooze: The Time of Year for Literary Prizes

Extemplo Libyae magnas it Fama per urbes—
Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum

“At once Rumor goes through the great Libyan cities,
Rumor, an evil than which nothing is swifter.”Virgil’s Aeneid

‘Tis the season for Booker Prize rumors.

“Did you hear they accidentally announced the Booker Prize?” my husband asked.

“Where did you hear that?”

“On the internet.”

“That can’t be right.”

When I typed in “Booker Prize accidentally announced,” there was one hit, a blurb from a site I’d never heard of. “On posting the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist on the Booker Prize website, due to a technical error the author Brandon Taylor was listed as the winner. The judges have not yet met to decide the 2020 winner so this information is incorrect and has now been rectified.”

I found nothing about this at The Guardian or the BBC.  Everybody likes juicy Booker gossip, so wouldn’t this goofy item have been  published widely if it had happened?

I was stewing over the rumor that the judges had already had their final Zoom meeting.  My husband kept teasing me.  “They chose the winner at the same time as the shortlist to avoid a meeting.”

“No!  This is a big prize,” I insisted.

A week later, my husband continues to tease me about the accidental Booker Prize. He claims the only Booker finalist with a waiting list at the library is Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which was declared the winner. “So don’t you think he’s the winner?”


And yet I vaguely remember a forgettable moment in my life: I had been asked to be a judge for some local award. We all had categories, and there were a lot of categories. There were so many categories that almost everybody in town would win.

I did a lot of research before I made my recommendation.

“Hm-mmm. But how about So-and-So? Isn’t he/she your friend?” one of the judges said.

I was confused. “Well, yes, he/she’s excellent. But I do think this other person’s work was brilliant this year.”

“It can’t be true!”

I thought–and apparently I was wrong– it would be nepotism to choose a friend.  I thought–and apparently I was wrong–that ethics forbade me from choosing a friend.  What really got to me– I had done all that homework!

So much rides on the Booker Prize that we want it to rise above politics and errors.  And we want the committee to have one last schmooze, perhaps next month.  (Though sooner or later, why would it matter?)

Covid-19 Unmasked: We’re Really Talking about Climate Change

My new haul of notebooks (50 cents each).

Writing on paper has magical qualities.  Putting the pen to the page has the  preternatural ability to tell us who we are. My brain fuses feelings with thoughts and grief I’d rather not acknowledge.  Screens screen us; paper reveals.

Fall is the time to buy office supplies on sale, so I have written by hand frequently this month.  I bought some composition books (50 cents each).  I’m not writing a diary.  Yet I write about what I don’t want to think or talk about:  Covid-19.  And I recently scrawled a few notes on a  conversation with another Covid-obsessed friend.

“What will we do when we can’t meet outside?”

“Go inside and wear masks.”

“I don’t think this will end, do you?”

“Not in this lifetime. We’re lucky to have made it this far.”

“This isn’t so bad comparatively–if you stay home.”

“If it ends, it will be more climate change events.”

We were being bores, but the shadow of Covid-19 hangs over us. I want to be distracted, and then I find an article about midwestern hotspots, or read about new outbreaks in Italy.

So many factors underlie every conversation about the virus.  When we talk about Covid, we are really talking about climate change.  In the wake of deforestation and urban sprawl, the chance of viruses jumping from wild animals to human beings has increased.

And it’s not just viruses: scientists predict more terrifying weather events. Hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos (inland hurricanes), more floods, more wildfires, and extinction of species.  Did you read about the starving birds dropping dead from the sky in the Southwest?  Now I did cry about that, though in general I’m against crying.

People have not been at their best during the pandemic.  Don’t take me literally on human behavior, which I don’t pretend to understand, but human beings are unpredictable, sometimes helpful in emergencies, other times raging and violent.  We can agree on one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic:   people all over the world hate staying home.

What do we see in the future?  Perhaps more protests against lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, or more protests like the sympathetic Black Lives Matter movement, or unsympathetic events like the motorcycle rally in Sturgis.  Perhaps there will be even more connectivity to electronic devices–people need distractions.

Alas–and I know I’m not supposed to say this– gathering in crowds has the potential to spread the virus.  The truth is, people are in denial.  It only hits home when when large numbers are tested (as they have been at the universities–terrifying), or when someone you know gets sick.

And so we wash, we wear the masks.  Yet I worry about the isolation of people who gathered in libraries (now closed) for a quiet hour, attended yoga classes at community centers, or  took  continuing ed classes. Continuing ed is a regular Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And now I’ll go write something frivolous and bubbly to lighten the mood.  People used to call me effervescent.  Wow, that was a long time ago.   I doubt I’ll recover that quality–“not in this lifetime,” as my curmudgeonly friend and I like to say.

Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages

“Don’t worry! I just came to tell you I’m not like other grizzly bears.”

There cannot be, as far as I’m concerned, too many translated books. We would love to read our favorites in the original, but that would require an all-consuming love of languages, not to mention talent, in an age when universities  have targeted language departments for budget cuts.  Spanish is, oddly, the sacrosanct “practical” language: the college presidents may imagine students are conversing with illegal migrant workers, or ordering drinks in Spanish in Cancun (though spring break is canceled next year).

I wonder if the American lack of interest in languages is, to a large extent, because we travel so little. Certainly, this was true when I was growing up. Family travel was expensive: if we felt like a trip, we went to the funny, charming movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” (It’s still one of my favorites.)

When we did travel in those halcyon days of the 20th century, it was likely to be a camping trip in Montana (where we didn’t speak Bear) or camping in Canada (where we still didn’t speak Bear). In fact, I was happier at home studying dead languages (ancient Greek and Latin), which, like Bear, are seldom spoken by humans.

Few stumble into classics of their own accord. (They’d rather speak Bear.)  Literature in translation is the lure. Where would we have been without a Classics in Translation class? How many of us rushed to sign up for Greek or Latin afterwards? We owe it to Richmond Lattimore (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), David Grene (Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), Robert Graves (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries). Today we have other brilliant translators: Betty Rose Nagle (Ovid, Statius), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Anne Carson (Euripides).

It turned out we loved the grammar and translation.  We especially loved our summer Ovid class, which tipped the scales in favor of Latin, though we studied both.  Once you’ve read Ovid, there’s no going back. “We’re the Ovidians!” (I wish I had the T-shirt.)

And it’s not just ancient classics, of course. There are so many classics we love in translation. I am a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:  you should see my collection of different translations. (My favorite is the Maude, but I also recommend Rosemary Edmonds.) And then there’s Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian), Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian), Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (German), Balzac’s Cousin Pons (French), and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Japanese). Some of my favorite modern translators are Tina Nunnally, Lydia Davis, Ann Goldstein, Juliet Winter Carpenter, and Lisa C. Hayden.

I still don’t speak Bear, but I am grateful for the many languages that reflect the cultures and literatures of our world.

The Reading-in-Bed Injury

The doctor may warn her about the perils of reading in bed.

Two days ago I woke up with a sore neck, shoulder, and back. Exercise didn’t help, and my only escape from pain was a David Lodge novel. Today I fumed and fussed, wondering if I’d get over this absurd non-sports injury. After looking up sore necks on the internet, I concluded the cause was “reading in bed.” Yes, that is listed as one of the habits that lead to my new tri-pain. And here’s something specific I attribute it to: holding up an 800-page book while I lounge on pillows!

On and off this fall, I’ve been reading The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, reissued last year by Everyman’s Classics. To say it is a big book is an understatement. Years ago I checked out an earlier edition of this book from the library, with an introduction by Angus Wilson rather than John Banville, and made it through 300 pages before I gave up. How can I love Bowen’s novels so much yet be bored by her stories? It’s a conundrum. Some of the stories are brilliant, some of them are too, well, lady-like and somehow distant. Because I love her style, I long to return to her novels.  This month I’ve made it through 412 pages of her stories,but  I am relieved to have a reason to quit. It’s a reading-in-bed injury, by God!

Reading on an e-reader is the obvious solution for reading in bed, but I can’t read on screens all the time. And so I switched to a 400-page John le Carre novel, which I’m loving but which seems to be a a trifle heavy to hold.

Perhaps I need to give up reading in bed. Sitting in chairs rather than lounging?

Natural Painkillers: Exercise or a David Lodge Novel?

A brilliant novel to read when you’re sick!

I got the message early in life that strong women don’t cry. At the dentist’s? Absolutely not. At most, say “Ouch.” At the doctor’s? Well, I did cry when an intern stuck an IV painfully into my wrist because he claimed he couldn’t find other veins (a phlebotomist revealed that I have veins).

Strong women don’t show weakness. That was my mother’s opinion. You cry fountains of tears only in private …  it’s “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

Yesterday, I woke up in pain, with a very sore shoulder and neck. Ouch! It really hurt. Did I sleep at an odd angle? I don’t know. Anyway, I did stretches for the shoulder and neck and then cautiously lifted three-pound weights. I felt somewhat better.

A nice day for biking–if not for the strained muscle!

I woke up today and felt much worse, so I decided bicycling might help.  I was about three miles into the ride when I wondered if I shouldn’t turn around. The pain wasn’t exactly getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better. Well, I soldiered on. I had to go to the store.

In the store, I immediately felt better. But while I stood on the social distance marks in line, the pain came back twice as strong. One advantage of the mask: no one can see you grimace.

And so I went outdoors with my purchases and called my husband.  He sent a message: ON MY WAY! I just sat there and waited, thrilled.

At home, I took Advil, drank tea, and applied a microwaved heat pack to my neck. The latter did nothing.

So I lay there and read my book. And my conclusion? A good, humorous book helps more with the pain than home remedies.  I loved David Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down.

I am a fan of David Lodge’s academic satires, and his third novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down, published in 1965, has a slightly different tone from the later novels. Although the hero, Adam Appleby, is an academic, the novel focuses on the subject of birth control during the 1960s. The hero, Adam Appleby, and his wife, Barbara, are Catholics, and the Church forbids them to use contraception, with the exception of the dreaded rhythm method.  (Those of you who are infertile will also be familiar with taking your temperature and charting your ovulation,)

And so the couple, who must start the day by taking Barbara’s temperature to see if she’s ovulating, feel decidedly unsexy. They already have three children, and are terrified that Barbara is pregnant again.

Lodge interweaves the analysis of serious ’60’s Catholic birth control issues with academic adventures. We follow Adam through a day in his life, which centers around research at the British Museum. In the morning, he is stuck in traffic on his scooter (it turns out to be the Beatles); can’t seem to concentrate while he waits for the library assistant to deliver books  to his desk (in fact, he does no work); attempts to obtain an obscure writer’s unpublished papers from an eccentric old woman; is misunderstood when his phone call is crossed with someone else’s as saying the British Museum is on fire.  And much, much more!

Lodge’s intellectualism is lightened by satire that reminds us happily of Lucky Jim. This is a deftly-written social and historical novel about the issue of birth control in the ’60s, and it is also funny. Wasn’t the Pill on every magazine cover?  Alas, the Church still forbids birth control, though  Catholics I know ignore such unpleasant tenets.

I hope you have an enjoyable weekend and I do recommend that you read David Lodge.  He manages to be brilliant and light all at once!

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