Five Favorite Books of 2020 & A Reader’s Year of Isolation

“Antiquarian Cat Reading,” by Edward Gorey

Things WILL be better in 2021.

And so I will end the blogging year with a frivolous list. At this point you don’t need another Best Books of the Year list, but here are FIVE FAVORITES of 2020. (Click on the titles to read my reviews.)

FIVE OF MY FAVORITES OF THE YEAR

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Desire by Una L. Silberrad

A Reader’s Year of Isolation

This has been, in many ways, a terrifying year. Not THE most terrifying year, but a very dangerous one. In March when Covid-19 erupted here, I was terrified, especially for my husband, who thought the coronavirus was just the flu. I yanked him into the street when pedestrians approached us on the sidewalk. And in the first weeks of the brief shutdown (not an official lockdown), people loitered on the lawns and sidewalks, chatting and standing too close together, while I grimly walked in the street to avoid them.

I wanted to say, “The virus is airborne, people. That’s what social distancing is for!”

But they couldn’t get their heads around the airborne virus that also required washing hands. And we didn’t even have masks in those early days.

People asked, What will you do with all the leisure while working at home? Well, it wasn’t a holiday. So hard to explain…

Of course we read a lot in 2020, but no more than usual. Many have written about a lowgrade depression that interfered with reading, and in the beginning I was so distracted that I read only classics. There was much reading of Chekhov, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, James M. Cain, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. Did I have no time to waste? Well, I would not go that far, but I needed well-wrought words to hold my attention. It was an antidote to daily reading about what was happening in China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and of course the U.S. I was sick from reading about Covid.

A public library in the 1960s.

And then the public libraries closed.

It did feel in those early days as if the government used Covid to deny books and knowledge to citizens. That conspiracy theory doesn’t work during a pandemic, but I do read a lot of science fiction, so it crossed my mind. The closing of libraries and schools has been an unfortunate consequence of managing the pandemic. Even for a stay-at-home, staying home gets old.

Somehow we thought the public libraries would stay open, because they are community centers these days. The avid readers, the lonely, the elderly, the poor, and the homeless gather to read newspapers, use the computers, photocopy documents, and borrow books. The library book clubs are the refuge of middle-aged women, and the lectures provide mental stimulation for the “seniors” (now that’s a ghastly sobriquet!). It is also where you pick up your special dark glasses for viewing the eclipse.

And so when they slammed the library doors in mid-March we were shocked. Mind you, I don’t consider librarians social workers, but surely with the appropriate plexiglass barriers, limited browsing, and their many, many self-checkout machines, they could stay open a few hours a day. Okay, curbside pickup was better than nothing. And then the libraries opened again briefly in October. Too briefly. The number of Covid cases and deaths dramatically rose, and they slammed the doors again.

Naturally, we are not completely isolated. We have many books. And we have our blogs, our online book clubs, our Novellas in November and our Women in Translation Months, our Zoom (shudder!), and other virtual substitutes.

But if I lived alone I might indeed go bonkers. So would I have ignored the restrictions and go out? Well, not entirely, but I might have gone shopping more often. I haven’t been to a box store in months. I miss them.

I do envy those writers who don’t believe Covid is dangerous. Some of them think the numbers are nothing! I do think the danger is real, and will continue to wear a mask after I get my vaccine, until the infectious disease experts tell us we’re safe. But guess who’s probably having more fun? The non-believers (unless they get sick, and I hope they do not)!

So Happy New Year! Be safe, stay home, drink your chosen drink (I recommend Darjeeling tea), wash your hands, wear a mask, and celebrate virtually!

2021 will be much better!

Two Classics of Different Quality: Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” and Una L. Silberrad’s “Desire”

I did some serious reading over the holidays to balance my bubbly reading of middlebrow fiction. I sprinted through Una L. Silberrad’s fast-paced novel Desire (1908) and ambled at a sedate pace through Flaubert’s stately Sentimental Education (1869). Since you have doubtless heard of the latter, I will start with Flaubert.

A friend recently assured me that Flaubert’s Sentimental Education was superior to Madame Bovary. I read… I read… I read… and I much preferred Madame Bovary. Nonetheless, Sentimental Education is crisp, witty, and beautifully-written, with a muted style, sharp imagery, and humorous descriptions of a group of flawed young men trying to make it in Paris.

When we meet the hero, Frederic, a well-to-do young man from a country town, he is just out of school. Like his friends, he studies various subjects, but unlike his friends, he never completes anything he starts. He has money and wants to succeed socially; that is enough.

When he arrives in Paris, Frederic has a reverent attitude toward women. He idealizes Mme Arnaux, the beautiful Madonna-like wife of M. Arnaux, who is a printer, publisher, art dealer, and philanderer. So obsessed is Frederic with Mme Arnaux, whom he once talked to briefly on a boat, that he insinuates himself into Arnaux’s circle. He accomplishes this by buying Arnaux dinners and covering for him when he spends an evening with his mistress, Rosanette. Arnaux convinces his wife that Rosanette is Frederic’s mistress, and ironically that comes true. Though Mme Arnaux is at the pinnacle of love in Frederic’s imagination, he also finds time to have an affair with Madame Dambreuse, a financier’s wife. Frederic is so confused he can’t really decide whom he wants. There is much quiet humor in this novel.

There is no doubt it is excellent. The problem is not with the writing. Flaubert can do no wrong! But the hero, Frederic, is a pale imitation of Balzac’s Rastignac, the hero of Pere Goriot and a character in many subsequent novels by Balzac.

In fact, Frederic’s friend Deslauriers directly mentions Rastignac when he urges Frédéric to take of advantage of a letter of introduction to a well-known financier.

“There’s nothing like mingling with the rich. Since you own a tailcoat and a pair of white gloves, make the most of them. You must get into that circle. You can introduce me later on. A millionaire—just think of it. Make sure you get into his good books—and his wife’s! Become her lover!”

Frédéric protested.

“But this is just the way the world goes. Remember Rastignac in the Comédie humaine. You can do it, I’m sure you can!”
 

As a fan of Flaubert and Balzac, I find Rastignan more interesting than Frederic, and felt that Flaubert had Balzac in the corner of his eye as he wrote Sentimental Education. It is as if the two writers were having a conversation, but Flaubert’s style somehow lacks the exuberance of Balzac.

Not that Sentimental Education is not a great book–it is. But Balzac was in my mind the whole time. And that is not a good way to measure a book.

On another note, I discovered Una L. Silberrad’s Desire by browsing at Handheld Press, a small publisher of reprints of excellent little-known books. I had never heard of Silberrad, so it was doubly a pleasure to discover her work. She reminds me a bit of Arnold Bennett, perhaps because much of the novel deals with the pottery business, and partly because she is not proceeding in the direction of modernism.

What is important in life? Business or the arts? That, more or less, is the theme of this intelligent novel. Desire, the heroine, a New Woman, attracts men like flies with her beauty and wide-ranging interests: she is the sparkling, illegitimate daughter of Sir Joseph Quebell, who lives in his house and has been raised as his daughter. In society everyone enjoys her company, but women are jealous. Desire is so witty and well-infomred that she unintentionally makes men fall in love with her.

Then one day a meeting between Desire and a man of a lower class changes both lives. At a soiree, Peter Grimstone is introduced to Desire when he is mistaken for someone else. Their conversation is pleasant, but he is certainly not overwhelmed or intimidated. He does not move in her social circle, nor does he wish to. And so he explains that they were introduced because of a case of mistaken identity.

She teases,

‘Don’t you think you might tell me who you really are, since you are not who he said?—though I have not the least idea who that is.’

‘I am afraid I am nobody,’ Peter confessed; ‘my name is Grimstone, and I am a writer of sorts: I suppose a journalist, after a fashion: that is to say, I do a certain amount of writing for papers and magazines and things.’

‘And don’t like it?’

‘I don’t know; I do in a way. Why do you ask?’

‘Because I’m sure you don’t really. You have not the look or the manner one associates with journalists.’

‘I am not altogether one,’ he explained; ‘there is other work which I like much better, and by and by—Well, I don’t suppose I shall always be a journalist, though I expect I shall always be a writer.’

The identities of Peter and Desire are in flux, though they do not know it at the time. The soiree might have provided their only meeting, except that Desire reads his first novel and loves it. And so they become friends, not as a man and woman, but as two intelligent beings.

And then things begin to go wrong. Peter and Desire are shattered by personal and business matters. Peter must give up writing and return home to help run his father run his pottery business; and Desire is destitute after her father’s death, has to live in a boarding house, and decides to go to typing school.

Silberrad has painted fascinating portraits of the New Woman and what we might perhaps dub the New Man. I am fascinated by the details of business. The energetic writing gallops along–occasionally there is a brief awkwardness of transition–but I can’t wait to read her other books–if I can find them.

A msut-read, though think Arnold Bennett rather than Flaubert!

Literary Trends of 2020: The Year of Quarantining Books

I pride myself on being psychic, but had no clue what 2020 would hold. Who could have predicted that bookstores and libraries would quarantine books, and that we would not laugh? The books did not get sick, but the humans surely did. Perhaps the humans should have quarantined themselves a bit more … and, by the way, the CDC has no data about how long the virus lives on paper.

Accusations of cultural appropriation can morph into bullying, unfortunately. In January, [some] members of the Latinx community protested the publication of American Dirt, a best-selling novel by Jeanine Cummins about a migrant journey. This fast-paced, issue-oriented novel, which was chosen for the Oprah Book Club, chronicles the flight of Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her eight-year-old son to the U.S. border after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco. The conditions of the journey are horrifying, with a high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way.  

Cummins, a white writer, received death threats, there were protests at bookstores, and the book tour was canceled. And yet Cummins was utterly sympathetic to the plight of illegal migrants. Much of the fury revolved around the six- or seven-figure advance she had received. The consensus among the protesters was that a Latinx writer should have gotten the contract instead of Cummins. Well, since she wrote the book…! My advice is to write a best-seller type book and THEN request the seven-figure contract.

Books about books remain popular. This year, we were reminded of our love of books by many new books about books: Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Rereader, Delpine Minoui’s The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller, Polly Crosby’s spooky novel, The Book of Hidden Wonders, and Matt Haig’s best-selling fantasy, The Midnight Library.

People are buying more backlist titles, according to Observer. Perhaps it is true: I have read multiple articles about people turning to the classics or at least to books published before this century. While some discussed War and Peace on Twitter, others coped by reading shorter books this year. Chekhov calms one’s nerves, I learned.

The N.B. column at the TLS changed hands. As if the Covid year weren’t bad enough… ! Longtime columnist J.C. (James Campbell), founder and author of the book column N.B., was replaced by M.C. (identity unknown). Naturally, they have different voices, and we can’t expect the same style. Perhaps the title of the column could be changed?

Small reprint publishers like Furrowed Middlebrow and Handheld Press made a strong showing in 2020 (at least with readers like me). I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1958), by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Furrowed Middlebrow), and Business As Usual (1933) ), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (Handheld Press). You can read my posts on these, here and here.

LET’S HOPE 2021 IS A GREAT YEAR FOR LITERATURE!

Charming Middlebrow Lit: “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Over the holidays, I read a great deal. It was very cold. There I was in the cozy but chilly living room, huddled under a blanket, reading a middlebrow novel and trying to shift The Cat Known As Undercover Cat from her position on top of my foot.

After I nudged her, she moved perhaps an inch. It was somewhat more comfortable. It was as much as I expected. Soon I was absorbed in my reading.

I love middlebrow English novels. Yet some of my friends do not read middlebrow -to the point they claim they do not know what it is.

My husband teased me: “What is middlebrow?”

“You know–highbrow, middlebrow.”

And before he could blink, I gave him a middlebrow book to read, Miss Plum and Miss Penny, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith. It was that, or bring the artificial tree up from the basement.

I checked on him at intervals. “It’s cozy,” he said. “Only the English could do this kind of thing.” Later he admitted, “It’s a good book.” And finally: “She’s much better than Barbara Pym.”

Even I don’t go that far! Barbara Pym’s books are classics, period.

But I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny, published in 1959, a charming comedy that is slightly reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s books, with a dash of E. F. Benson. Dorothy Evelyn Smith has a gift for noting quaint details about village life and collecting them into quirky paragraphs that will make you howl with laughter. Most of the characters are spinsters and bachelors. Why that is funny I cannot quite say–perhaps because without sex there are fewer complications. And yet many of us women spent our youth doing everything we could NOT to be a spinster, so it is a paradox. Humorous, though.

The heroine, Alison Penny, is a contented woman who has always lived in the same place and followed the same routine. When she wakes up on her 40th birthday, she does not dwell on the number, and she and her servant, Ada, follow their usual birthday routine. Ada brings her breakfast in bed and gives her a knitted bed jacket for a gift. Alison pretends to be grateful, though Ada always knits her a bed jacket, and Alison doesn’t like bed jackets.

When Ada brings up the birthday mail, they are shattered by a lapse in their routine. For the first time in 20 years, Miss Penny’s old flame, George, who went to Canada after her parents persuaded her not to marry him, has not sent her a birthday letter. But, as these things often go, Alison ends up comforting Ada.

“And,” Alison continued, wiping the tears from Ada’s cheeks with her own clean handkerchief, “I have my dear, comfortable home, the Glee Club, the Women’s Institute, my Cubs, and several good friends. That is a great deal to have.”

Ada doesn’t buy it, though. Romance is missing–and Alison’s parents also drove off Ada’s boyfriend.

Is this cover illustration by Edward Ardizzone?

Perhaps the missing letter makes Alison more susceptible to others’ troubles. On her walk, Alison notices a crying woman walking into the duck pond. Alison rescues Miss Victoria Plum from suicide, and and tries in vain to find out where her home is. She learns Miss Plum has had a series of jobs as companions to old ladies, and is currently unemployed. Alison doesn’t particularly want the responsibility, but she brings Miss Plum back to the house for lack of a better solution. The problem: Once the weepy Miss Plum is installed, there is no getting rid of her. And it seems unkind to get rid of her before Christmas.

The situation is comic, and Alison’s friends are also very amusing in their responses to Miss Plum. The only ones immune to Miss Plum’s helpless charm are Alison and Ada. For some reason, even Alison’s confirmed bachelor friends enjoy the company of lachrymose Miss Plum, though they have promised to help evict her from Alison’s home. Hubert, the vicar, a widower with a recalcitrant son, Ronnie, who comes home for the holidays, is pleased when Miss Plum offers to help out with the Cubs meeting, and Stanley, a bachelor banker who wears corsets and insists on making his own sauces, is susceptible to her flattery. Both men are captivated by Miss Plum’s helplessness. You can imagine how this steams Alison and Alison.

You must read this book! And be sure not to miss the Old People’s Treat and the ice-skating scenes.

So much fun, and I look forward to reading more Dorothy Evelyn Smith.

10 Genres, 10 Books: Last-Minute Christmas Shopping

One year I tried to make Christmas perfect. I spent hours choosing the right gifts, but it is so easy to select the wrong gifts: an eco-friendly corn resin watch, which I learned from the recipient was not ec0-friendly, a sweater for my mom in the wrong size (and shouldn’t I have known her size?), and a cute literary board game that bombed. We simplified our Christmases after that, and now I have a foolproof one-stop last-minute shopping method: I consult my 10 Books, 10 Genres list.

BOOK ADAPTED FOR FX LIMITED SERIES
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. Godden’s debut novel, published in 1939, tells the story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas.  Instead of praying and meditating in the palace-turned-convent, they become daydreamers, confused by the altitude, the extreme heat and cold, and the constant noise of construction/renovation in the convent.  The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together. A great nun book, and you can also watch the TV series.

HISTORICAL MYSTERY
The Shadow of Vesuvius by Tasha Alexander. The latest charming mystery in Alexander’s Lady Emily series is beautifully-written and great fun.  Set in the ruins of Pompeii, ir alternates stories in two timelines:  Lady Emily’s investigation of a murder in Pompeii in 1902, and a woman poet’s experiences and frustrations in Pompeii in 79 A.D. I love Alexander’s slightly verbose, old-fashioned prose, and the distinctive voice of Lady Emily. It’s not so much the mystery that enthralls, as the characters.

LITERARY FICTION
Private Means by Cree Lefavour. This stunning, witty first novel should appeal to fans of Elizabeth Tallent and the recent novels of Jay McInerney. It is also a book for dog lovers. Devastated by the loss of her cute dog, Maybelle, who ran away from the dog walker, Alice searches the streets while her husband, Peter, a psychiatrist, becomes increasingly irritated. Since their daughters went to college, Alice has dropped all pretense of interest in him. What will happen to this unraveling marriage as the summer drags on? It depends on the dog!

A NEGLECTED LITERARY CLASSIC
The Leopard and the Cliff
by Wallace Breem. This 1978 novel came up on a Best Books of the Year list, and was compared to Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I had to read it! Set during the Third Afghan War (1919-1923,) this pitch-perfect book follows the fortunes of Sandeman, an insecure, middle-aged British officer who is in charge of a retreat from a fort under attack. This brilliant novel is both plot-oriented and psychological: Sandeman’s low estimation of his powers are as wry and and self-denigrating as Waugh’s character Guy Crouchback’s. I was hooked by the first sentence: “He was sitting on the veranda drinking lime juice when the message came through, and he was alone.”

LITERARY BIOGRAPHY
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives
by Diane Johnson. In 1972, the award-winning novelist Diane Johnson reconstructed the story of George Meredith’s first wife, Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith. Mary Ellen was the brilliant daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock, but left out of most of the biographies of George. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. This was reissued by NYRB this year.

A FANTASY NOVEL FOR FANS OF LINGUISTICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY
Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan. In this offbeat book, Brennan explores the difficulty of translation from an ancient language and the ethics of the sale of archaelogical relics. Set in a society that resembles 19th-century English society, it exposes the dark side of the biz: wealthy lords and ladies want to buy archaeological artifacts from the ancient Draconean civilization. When Lord Glenleigh, known to be prejudiced against Draconeans, acquires a set of ancient Draconean tablets, he hires Audrey Camherst to translate what turns out to be an ancient epic. But can she and her learned assistant prevent his dastardly plot? Though this is categorized as fantasy, it is really cross-genre.

SMALL PRESS FICTION
Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis. Since I never wrote any notes on this superb novel published by Coffee House Press, here is an excerpt from the book description: “A novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who writes — The Rejection of the Progress of Love is a sexy, earthy, bracingly intelligent examination of the vicissitudes of grief, ambition, aging, information overload, compassion fatigue, and a data-centric understanding of self; the relative merits of giving up or giving in; the seductive myth of progress; and the condition of being a thinking and feeling (gendered, raced) inhabitant of an unthinkable, numbing world.’

DEBUT FICTION
It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriela Burnham. In this haunting novel, the heroine, Linda, a former newspaper writer and artist, travels to Brazil with her professor husband. She does not know Portuguese, and while he is at work, she feels increasingly paranoid as she navigates the streets alone. And she has no housework to do, because the university has hired a maid for them. Burnham, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, lyrically and evocatively describes Brazil, and explores Linda’s complicated consciousness. Think Virginia Woolf crossed with Catherine Lacey!

POLITICAL FICTION
A Burning by Megha Majunmda. Yes, this debut novel is as good as everyone says. Set in India, it hinges on the arrest of Jivan, a Muslim girl, for a terrorist bombing she did not commit. The police, wanting to arrest someone quickly, pin the crime on her because of a careless comment she left on Facebook. Terrifying, tense, ironic, and almost too believable to be fiction.

FAMILY SAGA
An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee. This elegant family saga follows four generations of an upper-class family. The focus is on Grammy, a,well-mannered, rigid woman who, it turns out, had many family secrets. Her granddaughter Isabella investigates Grammy’s past: Grammy, whose name used to be Tommy, stole her younger sister Katherine’s identity when she went to New York from Montana to reinvent herself as a nurse. Gorgeously written, fun to read, and based on McPhee’s own family.

Read on!

In Which I Meditate on Classical Snobbery and Have a Fling with Cicero

There are two kinds of classicists: the snobs and the proles. I am a snobbish prole, or do I mean a prole snob? For most of my life I have read widely in the canon of ancient literature. Though I do not make my living in classics, I occasionally enjoy a scholarly book such as Sarah Lindheim’s relatively light Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. 

Classics is not for everybody, yet I am grateful every day for an education by snobbish classics professors who taught not only Latin and Greek but the close reading of literature. Their obsession with grammar, style, figures of speech, and poetic meter blew my little undergraduate mind. And when I was offered a teaching assistantship at the only graduate school I applied to (the application fee of $25 was too expensive!), I was able to teach first-year Latin and Virgil as well as continue my studies.

Though sure of my language skills, I was apprehensive about teaching. My attitude was: You WILL do this, Kat! You HAVE to. And so I did. I was a gifted Latin teacher at the college level. My students enrolled for the language requirement but were hard-working and a pleasure to teach: they ranged from an extremely sweet frat boy (polite, never drunk) to a goofy English major who seemed dazed by the weight of the Complete Shakespeare to two brilliant pre-med students who were by far the best students. All eventually mastered grammar and read the Antiquae Sententiae in Wheelock, which is still a favorite first-year Latin textbook.

Teaching honed my Latin and my confidence. The only adverse effect of such an education on my personality was a certain snobbery, a disdain and pity for those who read the classics only in translation. I do have a strong feeling that classics professors, not English professors, should teach the Classical Lit in Translation classes. It baffles me that English professors can poach Classical Literature in Translation, when the same class is offered by the classics department–and taught by classicists! The particular English professor I’m thinking of dabbled in the Greeks but eschewed Roman literature altogether. O tempora! O mores!

Cicero

The real gift of my education, though, has been the solace of getting better-acquainted with the ancients through my own reading. This fall I had a literary fling with Cicero, and was extremely touched by his little-known speech, Pro Marcello (In Defense of Marcellus). Friends of M. Marcellus gathered in 46 B.C. in the Senate to ask Julius Caesar to allow Marcellus, who he had fought on the wrong side of the Civil War, to return from self-imposed exile. Cicero, who had also sided with Pompey, argued that Marcellus should be allowed to return safely to Rome as had Cicero and others of similar background.

This speech is as much a eulogy of Caesar as it is a defense of Marcellus. Cicero’s obsequiousness and flattery of Caesar can seem absurd, unless you are, like me, breathing a sigh of relief when Cicero manages not to alienate yet another powerful man and literally keep his head on. He needed to pay court to Caesar in order to help his friend. He tells Caesar that the pardon of Marcellus will be his greatest deed, that brilliant though his war prowess was, his deeds of peace and restoration of civilization would be even greater.

Here is a famous passage from the speech. Bear in mind all these words fit gracefully into two sentences in Latin.

Unless this city is stabilized by by your plans and institutions, your name will merely wander far and wide, and not have a stable place in history. There will be among those who will be born, just as there is among us, a great difference of opinion about your achievements: some will praise your deeds to the sky , others will think they lack some great signifiance, if you have not quenched the flame of civil war with the security of our country. The result of the deeds of war may seem to them the work of fate, but the stability of Rome will be praised as your own design.

Alas, Marcellus was assassinated while he traveled back to Rome. Dangerous times…

Skiable Snow, Klutziness, & Christmas Nostalgia

This is not me, thank God.

Last week, we had our first “real” snow. It is “skiable,” thus “real.” Those who want ski wax in their stockings are merry and bright. I do not personally cross-country ski, ice-skate, or attempt any of those sports undertaken by Kristin Lavransdatter (Kristin Lavransdatter) or Kitty (Anna Karenina). But I know ALL about them, as I married into an athletic family.

It is embarrassing to be a klutz. Suppose it is Christmas and you are snowbound at your in-laws’. Suppose your mother-in-law suggests cross-country skiing would be fun. I had never heard of cross-country skiing till that moment, but was horrified at the prospect of attempting to stand up on skis. Little did she know how (literally) painful and embarrassing my lack of balance would be.

Luckily, there was no pressure to excel in phys-ed when I was a girl. I grew up before girls’ soccer materialized as the badge of honor for yuppie moms and their offspring . Like Betsy in the Betsy-Tacy books, my best friend Carla and I had “weak ankles” to get out of ice skating, i.e., we couldn’t balance on ice. I have one deplorable memory of playing ice hockey in gym. I was hit with a hockey puck and fell down. Horrified by my bruises, my mother wrote an excuse to get me out of gym. And she confided she was afraid of water, and not allowed to graduate from college without swimming a lap across the pool. The teacher finally passed her for her courage as she desperately floated and floundered, never reaching the other side. Klutziness has passed from generation to generation…

Never mind. Earlier, as goofy 10-year-olds, my friend Carla and I were proud of our lack of athletic prowess, but lamented that it would interfere with our “plans” to marry into the Kennedy family. We pored over photos in Look and Life of “cute” Bobby Jr. and Joe Jr., who were constantly skiing, playing football, sailing, and kayaking. Fortunately, we were also in love with Christopher Jones in Wild in the Streets. We had options.

This year everything has changed for athletes and non-athletes. The fear of Covid is in us all. Well, in many of us. The ice rink is closed, but of course there is always room for cross-country skiers and walkers. Yesterday, I donned parka, scarf, hat, boots, and extra-warm gloves and took a short walk in the beautiful snow.

As I walked I felt nostalgic for Christmas vacations past. Yet I realized with surprise how little I’ve changed over the years, moving from political era to political era, from capitalist Christmas to capitalist Christmas. I am saddened by Climate Change and the resulting Covid virus, but am not surprised. What, I wonder, did the governments think would happen if they didn’t get off fossil fuels? Then as now, I also retain less serious political beliefs. I still avoid the exploitative fashion industry, and wear the same drab university-town attire I’ve worn my whole life.

Everything is the same in 2020; everything is different. I am enjoying Christmas break, though it is dull to stay home all the time to avoid the virus.

1951: Alastair Sim (1900 – 1976) as Scrooge

I miss the festive gatherings where one cannot avoid the ribbon candy or figgy puddings, caroling (off-key, in my case), watching the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, which used to be on TV all the time, taking a break from our rented rooms in college to stay in a friend’s spacious apartment while she went home for vacation, dining on Chinese food on Christmas as newlyweds, and, on one occasion, traveling to my hometown (which my husband romanticizes) for Xmas vacation and eating breakfast at a steak house, the only restaurant open on the holiday.

Well, my snowy walk made me feel more Christmasy, and perhaps I shall drag up the artificial tree. Some bloggers have just reread A Christmas Carol. After all, Dickens is the father of Christmas, according to A. N. Wilson in his brilliant book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens (which would make a good gift). Well, it is time to get out one of Dickens’s Christmas books. At least there will not be any cross-country skiing in it.

A Brainy Battle: Literature vs. New Books

At this year’s bookish cocktail party (that is, if there were such a party in plague times), I might have read just enough new books to hold my own in conversation. Perhaps the latest books are actually more like cultural commodities, wrapped in bright jackets and praised or panned by the critics. They are certainly ephemeral, as the new lists of Highly Anticipated Books of 2021 have already begun to eclipse them. I can imagine a reader wailing, “Wait, I’m still shopping for Christmas this year.”

We just can’t wait for the new books. If only we could all slow down. These 2020 books can be read any time–even in 2021. I consider a book “new” if it has been published in the last decade. For God’s sake, that’s much newer than Gilgamesh!

I admit, I read mostly classics and older books, because they are much better-written than contemporary books. I do not mean that there are no great living writers. There are. My mind is a blank at the moment, but I promise to list some at the end of this post.

Of course I am not as strict in my standards as the critic Joseph Epstein, a former editor of The American Scholar. In the essay, “Our Literary Drought,” recently published at the National Review, he laments the state of 21st-century literature, which he believes has been diminished by the Digital Age. He begins by talking about the flourishing of literature of 1955, the year the National Review was founded: Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges were all working then.

And I agree the middle of the 20th century was a great time for literature, though my list of ’50s writers would include Jean Stafford and Mary McCarthy!

Epstein goes on,

When and why [the good times for literature] stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon? If you feel you need more time to answer these questions — a long, slow fiscal quarter, say — not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.

Epstein notes that some periods of time are naturally richer in literature than others. He cites the Elizabethan age and 19th-century Russian as brilliantly productive ages. We can’t argue with that! But he adds that some periods of literature are lacklustre, and we are in one. The Digital Age has taken a plunge for the worse.

Epstein writes,

Everything about it, from 280-character tweets to Kindles, is anti-literary. What the Internet offers is information, whereas literature sets out in pursuit of something deeper. Reading online, I have found, is different from reading a book or serious magazine. I, who rarely skim books or magazines, online find my fingers twitching on my mouse when confronted by any piece that runs to more than ten or so paragraphs.”

I do agree about the problems of reading online–it is the madness of abundance. Online I keep clicking from article to article to find more news about a specific item–and paper keeps me calmer, perhaps because it limits the amount of reading.

Joseph Epstein isn’t the only one who yearns for more golden literary ages. Another fan of classics is Emily Temple at Literary Hub. During this plague year, she fond herself turning to older books. In her essay, “Want to Feel Better? Stop Reading New Books,” she writes about losing herself in Daphne du Maruier’s Rebecca, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, José Saramago’s Blindness, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Temple writes:

While reading each of these novels, and others, I found myself transported in a way that the newer books I was sticking between them could not accomplish, as good as I might have found them. And look, I read some damn good new books this year, like Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks.

Temple concludes these books helped her escape from the problems of 2020, but I wonder if that was all. Many readers eventually reach the point of wanting to go deeper in their reading and turn to the past. New books speak to current events and experience, and even historical novels are interpreted from a “modern” point of view every 20 years or so. It is always good to get some distance, to read from a different point of view, to come to realize that “now” is not necessarily “best.”

And now can I deliver on my promise to list some great writers of the day?

Of course!

Some of my favorite living writers are Louise Erdrich, Jayne Ann Phillips, Isabel Allende, Larry Woiwode, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Tyler, Ellen Gilchrist, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Lethem, Gail Godwin, and John Irving.

Alas, some of the greats have died this year, among them Elizabeth Spencer and Alison Lurie. We will miss them.

Who are the great writers of today?

Women’s Epistolary Novels of the ’30s’: “Business As Usual” and “I Lost My Girlish Laughter”

Last week I serendipitously came across two 1930’s women’s epistolary novels. The two books, Business As Usual (1933), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, and I Lost My Girlish Laughter (1938), by Jane Allen, are charming and riotously funny.

Business As Usual will delight every bookstore enthusiast. Told in the form of letters, telegrams, memos, and charming illustrations, it relates the struggles of Hilary, an out-of-work librarian who moves to London to find a job. Her parents in Edinburgh worry, and her stuffy fiancé, Basil, objects to the idea of women’s work, let alone in London. But she assures them that all is fine, even when it is not fine.

After a few weeks of job-hunting, she is no closer to finding work. She has answered ads (many of them scams) and visited numerous employment agencies, where no one is impressed by her education and training. Can she cook? Can she type?

Hilary writes,

I asked if there weren’t any other sort of places, and they looked me up and down and said darkly that it all depended. They had placed twenty people from Wales last week, but I was more difficult. (I hadn’t the courage to ask why.) At last somebody had an idea. They suggested that I might be a Good Saleswoman. And what about a Bookshop? A degree, they said, would matter less there. It might almost cease to be a disadvantage.

And so she becomes an office clerk for the book department of Everymans, a large department store. The job is far from glamorous–she writes labels all day, and sometimes puts cards in order. It is frustrating, because she would be more qualified to work in the bookstore itself, or the store’s lending library. I felt sympathetic, because at one of my first jobs, I was set to work photocopying all day. My education was a disadvantage until I found a professional job! And I’ll bet you have been there, done that, too.

Hilary is self-confident but miserable. The nine-to-six routine is grueling, and she barely has enough money to keep herself in stockings. Eventually her boss, Mr. Grant, whom she refers to as one of the Olympians, notices her talent and intelligence and promotes her. After that, life becomes much more bearable. She has more money, more energy, and no longer spends weekends reading in bed!

This charming novel is illustrated by adorable drawings of Hilary in her daily adventures. By the way, the two authors met while working at the Times Book Club in London, and collaborated on several novels. Jane Oliver was the pen name of Helen Christina Easson Rees, and Ann Stafford was the pen name of Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler.

Set in Hollywood, Jane Allen’s I Lost My Girlish Laughter is another hilarious epistolary novel. It has the appealing tone of the great humor books by Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, and Betty MacDonald. The narrator, Madge Lawrencee, an aspiring actress, becomes the secretary of a famous producer.

Like Hilary in Business As Usual, Madge has trouble finding a job. She stays in a women’s hotel where all the “girls” are looking in vain for acting jobs. They share Madge’s most stylish green dress, which they are constantly altering to fit different figures.

Madge has letters of introduction, but they do not help. A typical response is:

Mr. Freeman has asked me to acknowledge your letter and to advise you he regrets there is no opening at the present in which he could place you. I would suggest you apply to our Employment Department. I am sure they will show you every courtesy.

One desperate, dreary night Madge gets her break. Having nothing to do, she goes alone to a famous bar. And the magic happens; connections get her a job–and a bad connection too!

She writes in a letter to a friend:

The bar is crowded, so I modestly hie me to a little table facing the bar. I have taken the third sip of my Scotch highball and am feeling very sorry for myself when suddenly I spy a familiar face and hear a familiar voice. My first reaction is a wild surge of joy at recognizing anyone I know; then I think why couldn’t it have been someone I liked. For, it is no other than that limp bore, Bob Faulkner. Don’t tell me! I know what you’re thinking. But, in my condition even Bob Faulkner is welcome. Do you remember how we used to devise every known dodge at State to avoid him? Well, I think my sins are coming home to roost, for now I feel a large grin of welcome sprouting on my face and I wave frantically. He doesn’t seem to see me so I wave the louder. I am sure he looks directly at me but it is as though his eyes are opaque and they see nothing. I am thinking it is all very odd when I notice that a man near him is nudging him and pointing to me and whispering. Suddenly Bob comes to life. Next thing I know he is beside me and introducing me to Max Sellers, the director. Mr. Sellers is very cordial to me and Bob is very much Bob.

There’s nothing like coming across a friend you don’t like in a new city! Bob hates her, but Mr. Sellers does not. In fact, he knows a famous producer who needs a secretary. He says Mr. Brand will be impressed that Madge is a college girl, and immediately makes a long-distance call to him in Palm Springs. And so she gets the job! And then the three of them go to Hollywood parties. She is enchanted.

Madge is thankful to have the job. Her secretarial adventures become more comical and hectic as she obeys Mr. Brand’s ridiculous demands, stays at the office all night to take notes on meetings where he completely changes the setting, time, and plot of a script and sends the exhausted writers to rewrite, flies with Mr. Brand’s retinue to calm a hysterical “foreign” actress on location, and observes how fame changes the actors. Fortunately, Madge’s friend, Jim Palmer in PR, tells her what to expect. She sees Mr. Brand at his best and at his worst. You can’t count on him!

In real life, Jane Allen was the pseudonym of two women who collaborated on this book, Sylvia Schulman Lardner, who was David O. Selznick’s personal secretary, and Jane Shore, who came to Hollywood to write a film which was not produced. Jane Shore used the Jane Allen pen name for her later work.

A fun book, even if you are not a Hollywood aficionado.

When Does My Vacation Start? And What I’ve Been Reading

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Harriet (Samantha Morton) in “Emma” (1996).

I have not been on vacation this year. Wow, am I ever cranky! I would love a vacation for a day at a library. That’s how desperate and cooped-up I am.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen’s saucy heroines? Do you feel more like one of them now that you take walks for “fun”? Emma is my favorite–the most controversial heroine. To those who dislike Emma, all I can say is, I empathize with her fantastic misreadings of character, because who wouldn’t live in a fantasy world if she had to take THE SAME WALK EVERY DAY?

So why don’t I stop walking and go somewhere in a car, train, or plane? A trip to California, or is it under lockdown again? (I checked, and it is.) Or to New York, which is the most expensive, exhausting, and crowded American city. Do I really enjoy masked glamour and sophistication? Somehow the vibe isn’t right. I’d be tired before I even got to the Strand.

Oh, she’s so cowardly, you say. We’ve been on so many adventures this year! Some of you spent spring break at Yellowstone Park, where the sewer analysis proved you’d been pissing and shitting Covid virus. Others spent summer vacation at Black Lives Matter camps, or waving guns at the governor of Wisconsin for imposing lockdown. And my favorite rockin-vacation is the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Think of the Covid spread! And think of the articles I could have freelanced! I don’t have a driver’s license, but I bet somebody would have let me drive a motorcycle in Sturgis!

Meanwhile, enough about vacation. I know you want to know what am I reading.

I gave up on Angela Thirkell’s Marling Hall. Though it is mildly funny, it sags in the middle. Darn, Lettice isn’t going to marry David Leslie after all, and the other guy is too bland. It is a short book, so I’ll probably finish, but why? Time’s a-wastin’! If you want to read Thirkell, I can tell you honestly that her ’30’s novels are better than the later ones. She wrote one a year, like her character Laura Morland, and they vary in quality. After a while she gets her own characters mixed up.

I read parts of Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, an earnest, well-written book by Nicola Gardini, translated from Italian by Todd Portnowitz. Why did I pick this one up? Susan Hill recommended it on a Best Books of the Year list. I assure you it is a lovely, enthusiastic book, but it isn’t quite for me because I am already a Latinist. Gardini explains in the introduction that he wrote it for people who may have studied Latin in high school or college and liked it then, or for those who are simply curious about it. This is a book I would recommend to my students.

And what’s on my bedside table? Please, God, help me choose a cozy mystery. Do I want a Michael Innes, a Josephine Tey, something in Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series, a Robert Barnard, or maybe an Amanda Cross?

Let me know if you have suggestions!