The Problem with Initials

Vintage engraving of Woman reading newspaper, Late Victorian, 19th Century

“Your TLS subscription is about to expire,” the e-mail says.

Well, perhaps I will re-subscribe. I glanced at this week’s issue, and dutifully read two essays on classics, one on The Odyssey, the other on Pliny. Both articles seemed, well, facile.

Then the new N.B. columnist, M.C., was snotty about Louise Glück, the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

M.C. says pompously,

… it’s not an amaranthine mandarinate in Stockholm that matters in the long term; it’s the writing. And time itself, they say, will be the judge of that.

Yes, the Nobel Prize in Literature may sometimes attach itself to a writer who seems worth reading – regarding this year’s laureate, the American poet Louise Glück, you might have surmised as much by noting the modest accolades she has already garnered: the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Poet Laureateship and so on.

M.C. concludes that the Nobel Prize for Literature does not matter to posterity. It matters to me! I love Doris Lessing, Peter Handke, Yeats, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Heinrich Boll, Garcia Marquz…. So many great Nobel winners!

I did enjoy M.C.’s previous two (or three?) columns. We need our book columnists, and they are rare these days. But I have decided there are too many initials in the TLS: N.B., M.C., and J.C. (James Campbell), the former writer of the N.B. column. It might be better to rename the column, so we do not compare M.C. with J.C.

I am thrilled that I haven’t seen the “singular they”in the column. There are standards to uphold!

Four Songs to Keep You in the Moment: Carly Simon, Van Halen, Tears for Fears, and R.E.M.

Carly Simon singing about staying in the moment: “Anticipatin”

Namaste. Stay in the moment. Okay, try again.

In the seventh month of Covid we are frustrated: if only politicians listened to doctors and scientists, they could reduce the terrifying number of new cases here ( 1,200 a day) and unnecessary deaths.

I had to go three places to get a flu shot.

Live in the moment, we say. Appreciate this time without worry (or at least too much worry) about the future. “These are the good old days,” Carly Simon says in her lovely song, “Anticipation.”

Here are four songs to keep you in the moment, make you laugh, and feel joy.

Carly Simon’s wise and charming “Anticipation”

The joyful “Jump” by Van Halen

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by the whimsical Tears for Fears

The outrageously funny, sweet “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M., with Kate Pierson from the B-52s.


What Do I Really Think of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf

“What do I really think of Virginia Woolf?” I asked myself in 2018 during a snowstorm.

I asked myself, because the city was deserted. I was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant, reading The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf on an e-reader. I was happily perusing The Common Reader, On Being Ill, and The London Scene. That morning I had actually seen a portrait of Woolf at the nearly empty National Portrait Gallery.

I used to love everything about Virginia Woolf. In my twenties, I thought I’d never read anything more brilliant than Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I do love most of her books. But in 2018 I went from ecstasy to disillusion and even disapproval while I read her partly-autobiographical second novel, Night and Day. I was irritated by the snobbery and classism, by the patronizing attitude of Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine. To be fair, she does change during the novel. But I resolved that in future I would only read Woolf’s nonfiction, having a hunch her novels may not have been as astonishing as I’d thought.

Last week I overcame my petulance over her snobbishness during a breathless rereading of her vibrant novel, Between the Acts. Once my favorite book by Woolf, it was posthumously published in 1941. Although it is Modernist and experimental, it is entirely accessible to the common reader: the characters’ voices are seamlessly interwoven in a traditional narrative that highlights a domestic drama. And the history of England is commented on by a Greek chorus of villagers during a charming village pageant. The pageant is held on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by the Oliver family–for only 120 years.

Woolf knew a little about homespun theater, and the pageant reflects her experience. In 1922, she attended the rehearsal of a play by a women’s theater in London, which was written by a friend and directed by the famous Edy Craig. Woolf’s play, of course, has very different content: it is a history of England, told through verse, song, allegory and ribald dialogue. Like the play Woolf saw in London, this one is wirtten and directed by a woman, here the anxious Miss Latrobe. Woolf shares with us not only the comic performance of the play, but the reactions of the sharply-etched characters in the audience between the acts. In this odd novel, Woolf analyzes the subtle threads that bind the characters together, as the play portrays a changing England.

Poetry and verse permeate the narrative. We become well-acquainted with the central characters, the Oliver family, who live at Pointz Hall. Isa, the bored wife of Giles Oliver, secretly writes poetry, and walks around muttering verse to herself. Giles, a stockbroker who would have preferred to be a farmer, feels he has sacrificed everything to support the family, and is aware that Isa has a crush on someone else (it is, ironically, a gentleman farmer). And Giles is irritated when their wild neighbor, Mrs. Manresa, drops in for lunch with an unprepossing friend from London, William Dodge. Giles wonders, “What for does a good sort like the woman Manresa bring these half-breeds in her trail?”

The two older Olivers are as important in their way. Giles’s father Bartholomew laments the modern movement of history away from the civliization and etiquette of his youth; but his sister, the much more vivid Mrs. Swithin, sees the world from an entirely charming, whimsical perspective. In the following lyrical passage, we hear her thoughts about history.

But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the daw like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favorite reading–an Outline of History–and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the inguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

What a lovely book! And now I will reread Virginia Woolf. Yes, she is a snob, but she understood the changes in history, and recorded the changes as well as the feelings and thoughts of her characters. And so I now have both the fiction and nonfiction to read.

Scenes of a Pandemic

There must be a good side to the pandemic. What it is, you cannot say. You spend more time with your dog or cat. You appreciate the simple things, like embroidering masks or expeditiously ordering them online. You’ve learned one thing: there is more to do in a five-mile radius than you imagined.

It mostly involves walking.

Let’s see, you can stare at the political signs.

But there are other pandemic scenes. Let the masked ball begin!

1 Your neighbors entertain 50 unmasked people at a luau, just to make sure they infect everyone in the ‘hood. Covid is airborne, people! When will they learn?

A vintage Gothic novel. Has anyone raad it?

2 During Zoom meetings, you can now binge on e-book copies of cozy Gothic novels by Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Dorthy Eden. The plucky heroines quote poetry (at least in Mary Stewart) and visit a castle or a glamorous foreign country where they meet two eligible men, one of whom one turns out to be a killer or a jewel thief. They find the culprit, but do have to be rescued.

3 You acquire a huge collection of post-its, paper clips, folders, expensive fountain pens, and stationery. It is the equivalent of other people’s baseball cards or Barbies.

4 Since you didn’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice, you look through your old clothes and discover many are perfect for “loungwear.” Everyone loves the oversized Gap sweater from the 20th century, though the baggy fatigues may be too much.

6 After a hard day’s work, you decide to improve yourself by reading 20th-century American poetry. You binge-read Plath’s Ariel and decide her hymns to suicide are not her best work. You recognize Ariel for what it is–the book that captured the attention of Second Wave feminists. I do like her more elegant, formal ’50s poetry, though.

6 You spend more time than ever on the phone with the tech people, who give the same advice as the characters on The IT Gang: turn it off and on. But what if that DOESN’T work? You’d be amazed what they can walk you through.

The IT Crowd

7 You rediscover the joy of walking on sidewalks, after months of walking in the perplexingly less cushioned asphalt street to avoid other people’s spit. Now you’re too tired to walk on the street, so you hop off the curb if you have to.

Oh, and my favorite thing about the pandemic? We’re still here (as are you if you’re reading this).

Rock, Paper, Scissors

First, anchor your papers with a rock. Our notes flew off the table on the veranda of our favorite cafe. It was tiresome, because we are expert social-distancers, and had scootched our chairs as far away from the other tables as possible, and now the wind had scattered our papers. Should we race around to retrieve them?

And then a man who looked as if he belonged on the cover of a Regency romance, though he kept his shirt buttoned, stomped on the papers so they wouldn’t fly away. Thank God, though they were only notes, and looked more impressive than they were, because there were post-its stuck on the pages. I happen to love post-its, so it means nothing. But we’re all maskless (drinking coffee), and as he approached, I wondered how to signal we are social-distancing.

“Thank you so much!” I leaned back in my chair. And then I absent-mindedly rummaged through my bag.

My friend, horrified, whispered. “Don’t tip him. He’s not a waiter.”

I knew that, but I did need another cup of coffee. So I put on my mask to go indoors and get one.

Fun in the age of Covid!

Winding the Watch: A Few Notes on Sylvia Plath

In the fall of 2020, we are appalled by how little we remember the work of Sylvia Plath. And yet I distinctly remember reading Ariel at Hickory Hill Park.

“Did Daddy wind us up like a clock?” We thought that was the opening line of “Daddy.” No, we apparently made it up. We were thinking of the first line of “Morning Song.”

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

I wish I could remember the poetry, because my paperback of Collected Poems is more than “slightly foxed.” And I do have to reread at least the Ariel poems to prepare to read the new biography by Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. The Plath legend has been rehashed plenty, but I am interested in the 21st-century interpretation. Is there more to say?

Rereading Sylvia’s poems now, I find them striking but uneven. Much was made of the bipolar inspiration behind her masterpiece, Ariel, a collection of poems written in the weeks before her suicide while she was struggling with her illness. The madness added a tinge of drama for her readers. She was not separate from her art. But I admire”Morning Song” less than I used to. The second stanza seems bumpy, awkward. Not her best. And yet I remembered the watch (though I thought it was a clock).

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Suicide fueled interest in her poetry. Some speculated that her husband Ted Hughes was her murderer, though this makes little sense: he had left her and was living with another woman. I finally read some of Hughes’s poetry a few years ago, and he certainly is a brilliant poet. I used to think reading his work would be a kind of betrayal. That is not the way I think now.

Sylvia’s image of “a fat gold watch” will remain with me now. Poor Sylvia, too ill to cope, too much to cope with, not winding the watch.

A History of Book Club Addictions

I am a fond of book clubs: the traditional book groups that meet in people’s homes, book clubs at bookstores, library book groups, mail-order book clubs, TV book clubs, and the online book clubs.

Book clubs have been around for a surprisingly long time. The popular mail-order Book-of-the-Month Club was founded in 1926, followed by two other mail-order giants, The Literary Guild (1927) and Quality Paperback Books (1974). The Great Books Movement began at the University of Chicago in 1946 (I can’t recommend it: I was bored to death by Junior Great Books, whose canon included Aesop’s Fables and The Jungle Books, while the library had superior classics by Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett; but the group was dissolved anyway after the leaders discovered none of us had read Treasure Island). The influential Oprah Book Club, with the power to make best-sellers overnight, was founded in 1996 and suddenly everyone was in a book group. Beginning in the ’90s, books were discussed on books boards at AOL and Yahoo groups. Now Goodreads seems to dominate the internet, but there are too many book clubs on social media to count.

This woman obviously belongs to a book club.

I belong to several book clubs, and am especially fond of face-to-face groups. My favorite was the one I ran, naturally. I telephoned everyone beforehand to remind them of the meeting, and, they all showed up. Did I have a schoolmarm effect, or was I just endearingly enthusiastic? Well, we did have fun. Everybody in that book club loved to read.

Since the late ’90’s, there has been a proliferation of books and novels about book clubs, among them The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood, Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer, The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. One wonders: did the insanely popular Oprah Book Club and other TV book clubs inspire the many books about book clubs? There have always been books about reading, but the book club novel is a relatively recent genre (I think).

Short stories celebrate the eccentricity of the institution of book clubs. I chortled over Edith Wharton’s brilliant, funny short story, “Xingu,”about a small group of snobbish women who meet monthly to discuss books and culture. Wharton writes of the organizer: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition.”

(Do I see a little of myself in Mrs. Ballinger? Well, perhaps a tiny bit.)

And then the Lunch Club decides to entertain a writer. As they await the arrival of Ostric Dane, who is the author of the intellectual novel, The Wings of Death (an allusion to Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove?), they are apprehensive about what to discuss at lunch, and also concerned about the flightiness of their new member, Mrs. Roby,who admits that she has not read Dane’s book.

She had meant, she said, to glance through the book, but she had been so absorbed in a novel of Trollope’s that–

“No one reads Trollope now.”

Mrs. Roby looked pained. “I’m only just beginning,” she confessed.

Mrs. Roby immediately becomes our favorite character.

Although I participate in many book clubs, I do wish I could visit a salon. I long to attend the “third-rate salon” of Mme de Villeparisis in Proust’s The Guermantes Way, or at least to crash a party at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country house.

But I suspect the salon is more entertaining in literature than in life. M, the narrator of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, does not seem to have much fun at salons.

Where are the salons during a pandemic?

The Allure of Instagram, or Is It Bookstagram?

This weekend I joined Bookstagram, for lack of anything better to do. I needed a break from a brilliant but very long Russian novel. As everybody knows, Bookstagram is a compendium of pictures of books with captions, and I have never seen the point. Somehow my books have a rakish, rumpled look, perhaps on account of the casual shelving. But get a load of the pink Jane Austen set below. All those pretty flowers! This is commercial art. If I put this pink set on a white chair for even a minute, a cat would sit on it.

I want this Jane Austen set.

My eyes were saucers as I studied photos of “book hauls,” which include beautifully color-coded books photographed on the beach, a minimalist stack of books on a lace placemat with a vase and a pair of granny glasses, sets of Jane Austen (so many sets of Jane Austen), and a pair of manicured hands holding up the new Bobbie Ann Mason book.

Let me explain why it was a mistake for me to join Bookstagram. I already have a set of Jane Austen and the new Bobbie Ann Mason. Why did I look up the price of the Jane Austen set? Thank goodness, I remembered had just weeded duplicates of Jane Austen books. Anyway, there is no room for any more books in the house.

Perhaps I have mentioned my house is full of books. But have I mentioned the state of the bedroom? It is basically a small used bookstore, crammed with bookcases, boxes of books, books on the floor–and somewhere, a bed.

I was so tired of the piles of books after looking at Bookstagram that I actually cleaned the room. I brought in boxes, picked up everything from the floor, swept off a row of books I had actually piled on top of double-shelved books, and soon it was neat as a pin–as neat as it will get.

THE BOOKS ARE ALL ON SHELVES NOW. That is the best I can do.

If I’m inspired to clean by Bookstagram, more power to it!

“What if I spent all my money on interior decorating instead of books?” I said dreamily.

“That,” my husband said, “would be different.”

My books are just not “Instagrammable.”

ANALYSIS OF MY BOOKSHELF. As you can see, I like to mix up genres. Above, I have two volumes of Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy, Marie Brennan’s thoroughly enjoyable “Draconic Adventure Memoirs,” Doris Lessing’s favorite D. H. Lawrence novel (not mine, though), random NYRBs, and a Chekhov set lin the background.

Are your books Instagrammable? Let me have your Bookstagram hashtag, or address, or whatever it is, and I’ll follow you. Since I am following Penguin, ou know I’m in trouble. It’s a good thing I’m broke. That’s my mantra.

Covid Fatigue and Me

When my husband told me “our fearless leader” had Covid-19, I assumed he was talking about the governor, who refuses to mandate masks. No, it was Trump, another of the often-maskless, who finally caught Covid. My reaction was “No way!”

Mind you, there is nothing funny about Covid-19, and I am not proud of my initial schadenfreude. But we have been sick with grief, if not physically sick, knowing that our country has reached a low point during this pandemic.

Lately I’ve been perusing newspapers, reading personal columns by frazzled moms who work at home and indignantly say they “shouldn’t have to do this!”, meaning supervise their children’s online education DURING A PANDEMIC. I understand that motherhood is difficult, and these moms are witty, but how are they more frazzled than the rest of us? It is stressful not to be able to visit your relatives in a nursing home, or your husband in the hospital; it is stressful to wear a mask for hours at a time; to live alone and struggle to the doctor’s office or the drug store when you’re sick (and not necessarily from Covid); to worry about other people’s spit when they pass you on a trail and say “Hi; to be denied a Covid test. At this point I’m so worried that I have to stop myself from emailing a blogger who happens not to post for a few days.

I think the magic bullet for many of us was the idea that we would never catch the virus. We were too healthy, whatever our age. In March the politicians assured us-and a horrifying assurance it was–that people over 65 with “underlying conditions” were the most susceptible and most likely to die of the virus. So that was all right!

Of course by July or August, in what will never be remembered as the Summer of Love, we knew that young people were also susceptible, as we had suspected, and that young people also died. But there is a “What-can-you-expect?” attitude when an older person dies of Covid.

Although the majority of newspaper readers are 50 and over, it is rare for these aged humans to write columns about their experience of that oxymoronic condition, “living with Covid.” Journalists sometimes demonize middle-aged and older people for their own health problems. If they weren’t obese (and the doctors who set the standards are often anorexic, so don’t get carried away), if they exercised more, if they, in fact, were not American… You have to read the letters to the editor to get another point of view.

So here we are, on October 2, praying that this plague will go away soon. The data does not support this view but I am taking a break from perennial pessimism. I’m living in a dream that I will no longer lose my masks in the laundry. Where do they go? They stick to towels!

We’re already missing the sun. Summer gently soothed us.

By the way, does anybody know how to add an image to the new WordPress??????!!!!!!


Weekday Reading: Charlotte Wood’s “The Weekend”

Reading a new novel is like taking a recreational drug that has absolutely no side effects. You read it, you enjoy it, and you never think of it again.

That is the case with The Weekend, a short, very sad novel by Charlotte Wood. You may know her as the winner of the Stella Prize in Australia for her dystopian novel, The Natural Way of Things.

In The Weekend, Wood explores friendship, old age, and death. Three older women, Jude, a controlling former restaurateur, Wendy, a renowned writer, and Adele, a former actress, gather for Christmas at the house of their old friend, Sylvie. She has recently died, and they are cleaning and clearing out the house. Without Sylvie, the atmosphere is tense and their friendship unraveling. Their attitudes towards death–denial, grief, and anger–begin to control the narrative.

The central issue is, oddly, the presence of Wendy’s very old dog, Finn. Early on, we meet Wendy in her car with Finn, whom she loves dearly, and who was a gift from Sylvie. He is now deaf, very old, and dependent. He often pees on the floor. And when Wendy’s car breaks down and they are waiting for assistance, of course he pees on Wendy, and the car stinks. Jude is so angry at Wendy’s arrival reeking of urine that she seems about to explode. (She has already had a small stroke, but nobody knows. )

Wendy is calm and casually cleans up Finn’s messes. But Jude insists the solution is to have Finn “put down.” Wendy ignores her, because she will let Finn live out his life.

The arrival of Adele, once a successful actress, leavens the narrative, because she lives in her imagination. She dismisses her own problems: she is penniless and about to be homeless. In her mind, she has, at 70, a chance to replay her successful Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? No one knows about her fantasies (at first), but Jude dismisses her as a lightweight, and Wendy coddles her because she is needy. Nonetheless, all three must confront the possibility of their own deaths.

Now you may think you’ve read this book before, or at least one or two like it. I kept thinking of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, about a group of friends who gather to dispose of a friend’s ashes. Now that is a perfect book!

This is pretty good, though not great. I was moved by the ending of The Weekend. Is it enough to be moved by a book? It probably is. Wood is an excellent plotter, the style is very plain and simple (perhaps too plain), and Wendy is an especially vivid character. I sometimes doubted Jude. I did prefer The Natural Way of Things–a very different novel.

The Weekend looked chic on a tiny table with just a few books on it at Barnes and Noble. (The design has improved greatly under the auspices of CEO James Daunt, who is also CEO of Waterstones in the UK.)