Writers Dining with Other Writers: Storm Jameson’s “The Road from the Monument”

Storm Jameson

Years ago, I wrote a local newsletter called A Few Green Leaves. The concept was simple: I selected an out-of-print writer, wrote a brief biography of him or her, and reviewed one or two of her books.

The subject for my first issue was the English writer Storm Jameson (1891- 1986). No one seems to read her anymore, but she is very good. She was born in in North Yorkshire, educated at University of Leeds and King’s College London, active in leftist politics, and wrote 45 novels and numerous reviews to make a living. Her style is seemingly effortless rather than elegant, her plots elaborate, her characters complex, her point-of-view unflinching, and her novels consistently workmanlike and fascinating.

I recently read Jameson’s forgotten 1962 novel, The Road from the Monument, a brilliant page-turner which is (or was) available as an e-book from Bloomsbury Reader. If you are curious about the gossip of bitchy writers, you will adore Jameson’s characters, some of whom struggle, others of whom do well, and still others are jealous of anyone who succeeds.

At the center is a successful writer, Gregory Mott, who is charming, handsome, talented, and very smug, as his bitter invalid wife has learned over the years. The son of an impoverished sea captain, he grew up in poverty. Now, in addition to being a critically-acclaimed writer, he is the director of the Rutley Institute of Arts, and has enormous prestige in the literary world.

Much of the book is told from the point-of-view of other writers, who have decidedly mixed feelings about Gregory, but we also hear from his friends and his wife.

The first chapter is told from the perspective of seventy-year-old Paul Gate, Gregory’s former teacher. Paul was the lowest-paid teacher at the school because he never passed the education exams. He thought so highly of Gregory that he paid the fees for Gregory’s university education. Paul went hungry and lived in a hovel so he could support the brilliant boy. And as the years go by, he is delighted to receive occasional letters from Gregory and read his books, and does not expect to see him.

Finally Paul receives a dinner invitation and will be reunited with his favorite pupil in London. But Paul is shocked by Gregory’s selfishness and what he deems as immorality: he jokes about religion. And he is devastated when Gregory carelessly asserts that he regrets not having gone to Oxford. He realizes Gregory was not who he’d thought he was. And later, Gregory carelessly tells a school friend that he was sure Paul had money or he wouldn’t have paid the tuition.

Most of the characters are writers, and Gregory’s most loyal friend, Lambert Corry, a failed novelist, is the deputy director at the Institute. Lambert is bitter because Gregory gets the credit for the work that Lambert does. He does not understand that Gregory is the idea man. Lambert’s wife lambastes Gregory at her dinner parties while at the same time promoting her latest, not always talented, young proteges. Lambert is pleased by her vituperation of the golden boy, though he always defends Gregory.

Harriet, Gregory’s former mistress, still loves him but knows his faults. One of them is vanity: she knows despairingly that he is better-looking than she, and that was one of the reasons he did not marry her. His wife, Beatrice, also had money. Harriet is a writer, but the critics don’t like her, and she has been grinding out mediocre books for decades to pay the bills. Now she is tired. And I can only imagine that many novelists feel like this when they must go on and on because they have no savings.

She reflected lucidly that she was paying now, in her fiftieth year, for not having made herself any allies. After all these years of hard and on the whole honest work, she was back exactly where she started as a very young woman, without security, without money, and with fast-diminishing energy —she was strong but she had used herself mercilessly hard. An unworldly fool. A freak who does not even amuse. She did not know how to talk to people, she could not make herself respected: no one, not the weakest or youngest, had any reason to fear her —and so no reason to help her.

Gregory finally makes an error that threatens everything he has. But I won’t give away the plot.

I realized while I was writing this that religion plays a big part in this book.

Id you want to read Jameson and can’t find The Road from the Monument, there are many used copies of her Mirror in Darkness trilogy, which consists of Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935), and None Turn Back (1936).

May I Have This Book, Please? & Literary Links

May I have this book, please?

I am speaking of Two Way Mirror by Fiona Sampson, the new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When I read a review today in The Guardian, I was very excited. Oh, my God, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I said ecstatically to my husband. Could we go to the bookstore and pick it up?

Unfortunately, we could not, because it will not be published here till August. This happens so often. Why can it not be published at the same time as the UK version?

Well, I can always reread Barrett Browning. I have a pink copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems, a little the worse for wear for being in the mudroom for ten years. I paid 40 cents for this at the Planned Parenthood book sale.

Of course we all read Robert Browning, but Elizabeth Barrett used to be overlooked. And yet readers everywhere know the opening line of her famous sonnet:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Time to beat the gloom of February by reading some of her poems.

AND NOW FOR LITERARY LINKS.

  1. Will Self is writing a series of essays on reading for Lit Hub. And I think you will be especially intrigued by the autobiographical bits in the first one, How Should We Read?

Raised by bookish but undisciplined parents, I always felt I had just about the best introduction to reading imaginable: my American mother’s modish novels and zeitgeisty works on psychology mingling on the shelves with my English father’s English canonical tastes and his motley collection of philosophical texts (many of which came from my autodidactic grandfather’s own extensive library). And there were plenty of other books as well—acquired by my brothers or me at second-hand stores and flea markets. Nobody was remotely precious about these volumes: they were there to be read not revered. And since my parents had also decreed—in order to inculcate us with their own bookish tendencies—that we could have no television, reading was pretty much all we had to do: there was no street life in leafy middle class English suburbia in the 1960s, unless you liked watching lawns grow.

2. This week, the TLS published a review of Dorothy Whipple’s Random Commentary, first published in 1966, ” an assortment of writings from note-books and journals,” and reissued by Persephone.

Are you a fan of Dorothy Whipple? Persephone has been reviving her novels for years. I have enjoyed some of them, though I am not a mad Whipple fan. I remember reading a more or less “Virago vs. Persephone” article (in the Guardian?), in which one of the Virago editors said they never crossed “the Whipple line.” Well, Whipple is middlebrow, but some of the Viragos are too.

Anyway, the reviewer says,

We first meet Whipple in the mid-1920s. After her first love was killed during the First World War, she marries her employer, Henry Whipple, the director of education for Blackburn. She also struggles to establish herself as a writer, failing to sell a short story for five years. Modesty regarding her writing abilities and gentle wit suffuse these diaries. Whipple repeatedly berates herself for not working hard enough. Procrastinating, staring out of the window, or poking the fire – anything but writing: “When I have time to work, I don’t want to. When I haven’t time, I want to”. Whipple begins new drafts before finishing previous versions. Working on one book, she always wants to be working on another; “shaping and polishing” is her favourite part of the writing process. When her first novel, Young Anne (1927), is accepted for publication, the relief is palpable: “I’m not lost any more”.

Have a great reading weekend, whether you choose Elizabeth Barrett Browing, Dorothy Whipple, or someone else entirely.

As a Science Fiction Geek…

The most important environmental novel.

As a science fiction geek, I ought to be able to predict the future. The lord knows, I have spent enough time in the company of Ray Bradbury, Ann Leckie, Clifford D. Simak, Frank Herbert, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Of course the writers never get it quite right, but metaphors can be close; the TV pundits and newspaper columnists are less reliable as they spout ever-changing opinions on a daily deadline. Nonetheless, despite my eclectic reading, I have a bad feeling about the future.

With so much of the world ill or in lockdown, we are often depressed. And at the present moment, I am dismayed by our ineffectual government’s wasting weeks trying to nail Trump for the assault on the U.S. Capitol. We were all terrified by the attack, though I’m not at all sure it was an attempted coup. Of course the plotters and the violent attackers should be brought to justice. But it is ironic that the House and Senate allowed Trump to threaten national security for four years by constantly firing people in important positions–that scared me as much as the assault on the Capitol! No, they dare go after him now that he is out of office, and because they personally felt threatened when the Capitol was attacked. They did not show the same degree of concern for mass shootings in churches and schools, or for police violence, or the many other terrors set loose on the population by maniacs. Was this really a coup d’tweet?

A great political and environmental novel.

I try to avoid reading about politics. I voted for the Dems because I want to see green energy implemented, the vaccines distributed quickly, strategies for dealing with pandemics and climate change, and the completion of the thousand and one other important things the government owes.

For the last year, we have looked to infectious disease specialists and other scientists who have tried to hold this country together. Some states and the federal government actively interfered (and still interfere) with mask mandates recommended by the CDC. What is to be done? Where is all the government brain power?

The Cumaean Sibyl, also probably has a Zh.D.

But with my Zh.D. in Vampire and Zombie Lit , I am relieved that it is at least not the zombie apocalypse. The movies 28 Days Later and 28 Months Later can be viewed as a terrifying metaphor for a pandemic. Of course in the zips of this century, good vampires were as fashionable as the bad zombies. In the Twilight books, which I binge-read on the recommendation of a fortysomething friend, the witty, klutzy heroine, Bella Swan, moves to the small town of Fork, Washington, to live with her policeman father, and is not impressed with the fog or the small-town culture. But Edward, the gorgeous perfect gentleman vampire, saves Bella’s life when a car almost rolls on top of her. The two fall in love: Edward is something of a human rights activist; he drinks animal blood instead of human blood. Bella’s best friends are vampires and werewolves, and it is only a matter of time before she will have to make a change. But there is a place for infectious disease specialists in their Twilight world: medical experts are called in!

Somehow we never expected the pandemic, or any of it. It’s all horrifying, but it could be very much worse . Some people are suffering horribly, some people are terrified, some view this era as an inconvenience–and I might try the latter for a while, if I can just wing it.

Spring is coming–then we’ll be more positive! At least we hope so.

So Near and Yet So Far: What Would You Do to Acquire a Favorite Writer’s Papers?

One of the highlights of a trip to London was staring at the manuscript of Jane Eyre at the British Museum. I could hardly see it in the dimly-lit glass case, but it was there. So near and yet so far. That was my first inkling of what scholars must feel when they get their (gloved) hands on a manuscript.

I was thinking of this the other day when I read Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a strange comical novella about a besotted scholar who will do anything to acquire the papers of Jeffrey Aspern, his favorite dead Romantic poet. The papers are reputed to be in the hands of the dead Aspern’s ancient mistress, Juliana, who has already refused the request of another scholar. So how can he get his hands on the papers?

The artful narrator daringly pretends an interest in Juliana’s garden so he can persuade her to rent him an apartment in her dilapidated Venetian villa. And Juliana’s niece, Tina, inadvertently becomes his collaborator: she innocently reveals that Juliana still has the papers in her bedroom. Let me just say that the narrator can’t resist searching for the papers even when Juliana is on her deathbed. Is such bad behavior rewarded? Read the book.

Barbara Pym is well-known for her charming novels about witty spinsters, indexers, librarians, and much-sought-after vicars. In her posthumously-published novel, An Academic Question, the narrator, Carol, is a bored faculty wife. Her husband thinks she should get a job, but she does not want to join the band of frowsy faculty wives who file things in the library to get out of the house. Instead, Caro volunteers at a nursing home, where she finds herself reading aloud to an elderly anthropologist who has not written up all his research. Her anthropologist husband and the chairman of his department want to get their hands on these papers. How far will they go?

In Doris Langley Moore’s hilarious novel, My Caravaggio Style, a bookseller and impecunious biographer decides to forge a manuscript of Byron’s alleged “lost” memoirs. He plans to “find” themanuscript in his aunt’s attic so he can sell it to an irritating American collector. Let us just say that things get out of hand.

Doris Lessing is one of my favorite writers, but let me be clear: I have no desire to go through her papers. Let the biographers go through her papers! When she announced she would not publish a third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people who were still alive, I respected that decision. But, ironically, Lessing was barely in the ground before Jenny Diski, an excellent writer who sometimes went too far, published her memoirs of Lessing, who took her in when she was a homeless teenager. I was appalled by Diski’s hatred of Lessing.

Anyway, I eagerly await a biography of Lessing. Shouldn’t one be coming out soon?

Becoming Miss Bates: How Old Is She Anyway?

Nothing has happened for a year, so we now chat on the phone about fictional characters. And somehow we are on to minor characters in Jane Austen.

I have never identified with Miss Bates, the babbling spinster in Jane Austen’s superb Emma. In fact, nobody relates to Miss Bates.

“I talk a lot about personal stuff, but not THAT much,” I said to my good friend Janet on a landline. We are on landline phones because if we did Zoom or a video chat, we’d (a) have to clean the house and arrange the bookshelves, and (b) groom our post-apocalyptic hair, which at this point resembles the hairdo of the neighbor’s sheltie.

“I feel sorry for Miss Bates, but we’re too young to be her,”Janet said. “Emma is the one we’d hang out with.”

“We’ll never be older than Emma.”

And that did make us giggle, because we’ve identified with Emma for so long the relationship begins to feel rather vampiric.

“Emma is always 21, and we are forever thirty-nine,” Janet said.

“That’s true.”

Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates

But how old is Miss Bates? The first time I had an inkling that Miss Bates might be youngish was when Tamsin Grieg played her in the 2009 Masterpiece series of Emma. Grieg, 42 then, looked to be in her thirties, and interpreted Miss Bates less as a caricature than her predecessors did. I liked her interpretation of plain Miss Bates: she is rather sweet, not too bright, wears unbecoming caps and bonnets, and her prattle comes across as a gentle literary Tourette’s. All of the dramatic interpretations of Miss Bates seem very good to me, but Miss Bates seems different here, because she is younger.

Prunella Scales as Miss Bates (1996 TV movie)

I am perhaps fondest of the 1996 TV movie (starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma). The wonderful character actress Prunella Scales was 64 when she played Miss Bates, but had the forty- or fiftysomething energy that expresses my idea of Miss Bates. I’ve always thought Miss Bates should be middle-aged.

Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates (movie 1996)

In the 1996 theatrical movie of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Sophie Thompson played Miss Bates. This ebullient actress, then 32, hides behind goggly glasses, plain dresses, and bonnets. I saw this film so long ago that I do not remember Thompson’s performance, but she looks as though she is throwing herself into the part. Is this the scene where Emma mocks her?

It would be easier for us to become Miss Bates. if we knew her age. On the surface, I am completely unlike her: I don’t brag about my nieces, and I am married. But we have all had a Miss Bates moment: we misspeak, accidentally wear a sweater backwards, knock over a pile of books at a bookstore, and someone is there to mock. It is so much easier to be handsome, clever, rich Emma than poor, babbling, dull Miss Bates.

As far as I know, Jane does not reveal Miss Bates’s age. Any guesses?

Are Pink Books for Women? “Girl, Serpent, Thorn,” “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and “Siri, Who Am I?”

I am fond of books with pink covers, possibly because of a weird post-feminist nostalgia: pink used to be for girls, and blue for boys, until Second Wave feminists smashed the stereotype and we switched to more subdued colors–including blue.

A pink Jane Austen

You wouldn’t know my fondness for the rose hue by my book collection: there are few books on my shelves with pink covers. My theory is that pink books are meant to be fluffy and flirty, aimed at women. You might find a pink copy of a Jane Austen novel, but you will not find a pink Emily Bronte (she was too tough), a pink James Joyce, or a pink Shirley Jackson. Most of my books are paperback classics with details of famous paintings on the cover.

And so is it any surprise that I go gaga over pink books or books with pink cover art?

Let me start with Melissa Bashardoust’s brilliant fantasy novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, which was magically irresistible because of the pink wallpaper effect of the cover art. A design of pink roses is entwined with serpents on a creamy pale poison-green background.”Sometimes the princess is the monster,” it says beneath the title.

I was utterly spellbound by this retold fairy tale. Billed on the cover as a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” it is closer to the Persian stories which the author cites in the Notes. She was influenced by the Persian epic, the Shahnameh, and Persian folktales. She explains the Persian cosmology, with detailed background on the divs (gods) and pariks (female demons).

The heroine of this graceful novel is Soraya, a member of the royal family, and the sister of the Shah. As the result of a curse by the Shahmar, who is the most powerful div (god), poison runs in her veins and she kills whoever she touches. She lives alone in a luxurious apartment and has a beautiful garden. But she is lonely and not a little angry that she is isolated from her family. And before her brother marries her former best friend, she wishes she could experience love, too A handsome young soldier spots her from a roof and says he has been in love with her since he heard her story. It seems that he might solve all her problems. Alas.

Soraya must concentrate on knowing herself and coming to terms with her unfeminine violent power, and finding a way to undo the curse, with the help of a parik (a female demon).

Bashardoust’s style is delicate, intelligent, and empathetic. The genre is officially Y.A. fantasy, but I can’t imagine what Y.A. means here. The style is much better than that of the average fantasy, and the characters are adults, not teenagers… Perhaps Y.A. pays better than fantasy. I have read that most of the buyers of Y.A. books are adult women.

A book I read for the pink cover, but it goes well beyond the implications! A fun, fastd, well-plotted novel, teeming with intrigue and action.

Is it cheating to call Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts a pink book? I found a picture of a pink Canadian edition, so I say, Cheat away! West’s bitter 1933 novella is a mournful tour de force, fraught with Christian imagery and despair. I had remembered this as a light book. but on this rereading I cannot imagine that I ever found it so.

In West’s masterpiece, he portrays an American society that has disintegrated to the point of no return during the Depression. The unnamed protagonist, a male reporter who writes the Miss Lonelyhearts column for a newspaper, can scarcely bear to read the letters of the desperate, semi-literate people who ask for advice. The letters topple Miss Lonelyhearts from his ironic perch and he ceases to think the job is funny. He knows there are no alternatives to the letter writers’ hopeless financial and personal problems.The only thing that can save them, he thinks, is Christ. And his sadistic editor, Shrike, mocks him and torments him about his depression and incipient Christianity.

West’s style is spare, stabbingly frank, and peculiarly American. He skewers journalism, cynicism, sex, religion, and even the depression of Miss Lonelyhearts.

He stopped reading. Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business. Besides, Christ was Shrike’s particular joke. “Soul of Miss L, glorify me. Body of Miss L, save me. Blood of…” He turned to his typewriter.

A brilliant, cynical, oddball novella about the failure of American myths in a crumbling society. The last sentence will haunt you.

Siri, Who Am I? by Sam Tshida, is the pinkest book of all, though the cover may be closer to peach. So this is what happened to chick lit, I thought when I saw it on a boutique-y bookstore table.

It is a fast, funny read, in a way, though I didn’t bother to finish it. Mia wakes up from a coma and does not remember anything–she makes some wild guesses from her phone and the Instagram account.

Ultimately, this is a romance. Naturally there are two men in her life. Which one will she choose?

I figured it out on page 68.

But that doesn’t mean that some of you won’t enjoy this.

Two Fabulous Reads: Minae Mizumuro’s “An I-Novel” and Elly Griffiths’s “The Postscript Murders”

It is colder than Anchorage and Moscow. I thought I would while away the freezing days by reading review copies. I’ll do one a day, I told myself. After all, the English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson used to receive a box of books in the morning and have her reviews finished by the end of the day. The character Walter Bidlake, a literary journalist in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, did the same thing.

Well, I can’t keep up with Pamela and Walter, but at least I can condense two reviews in a single post. This week I am recommending An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura and The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffith.

I became a fan of Minae Mizumura when I discovered A True Novel, her haunting Japanese version of Wuthering Heights. I also admired and enjoyed this beautiful new translation of An I-Novel, a layered, pitch-perfect novel about a Japanese woman who feels out of time and place. Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator, tells us that in Japan this autobiographical novel was called the “first bilingual novel”: it was written in Japanese and English to reflect Minae’s experience in Japan and the U.S.. Naturally, the translation of this lovely bildungsroman is in English for our sakes.

The characterization is deftly developed as the reader is taken back and forth in time in America and Japan. The heroine, Minae, is a sad, anxious woman at an Ivy League school who has longed for 20 years to return from the U.S. to Japan. At the age of 30, she is still a graduate student in French literature, hiding out in a cockroach-infested apartment, doing no work, realizing that she is almost past her expiration date in the world of Ph.D.’s

Minae’s only personal contact is with her older sister, Nanae, a sculptor who lives with two cats in New York. Nanae calls her long-distance almost every day. Nanae is barely getting by: she has broken up with her boyfriend, and she and Minae are are failures by their parents’ standards, both single women who can barely support themselves.

I love the sisters’ conversations about their mother’s insistence that they must marry. It never occurred to them that they would have to work.

Having grown up without any notion that we needed to work, this perfectly ordinary fact had not occurred to either of us until recently. But it had probably never occurred to Mother either as she brought us up. She worked because she wanted to, not because she had to.

A lovely book that we can all relate to, even though we come from different cultures. And now on to something different…

Elly Griffiths’s The Postscript Murders is a delightful cozy mystery. Set in Shoreham-by-Sea, it begins with an unlikely murder. Ninety-year-old Peggy Smith is popular with the other residents in her senior apartment house, loves Golden Age mysteries, and is known as a Murder Consultant (she helps writers with their murder plots). When a carer, Natalka, discovers Peggy’s dead body, she has a hunch something is wrong and suspects murder. She confides in DS Harbinder Kaur at the police station. And when a gunman shows up at the apartment after the funeral and runs away with one of Peggy’s out-of-print books, Harbinder believes Natalka’s theory.

I love the group of characters: The beautiful Natalka, originally from the Ukraine, has a wild imagination; Benedict is a former monk who runs a coffee business on the beach; and Edwin is an elderly gay man who watches Murder, She Wrote. These three bond together to investigate the crime, and end up at a literary festival in Scotland. Harbinder is on their side, trying to keep them from getting killed. But even nursing home residents talk in anagrams: Does “red rum” really mean murder?

An unputdownable brilliantly-plotted read!

Swearing During the Cold Snap

Raised on Jane Eyre, I am appalled by the language of women on TV

Growing up in a small university town, I was an avid reader of classics (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Lord of the Rings, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles) and was oblivious of the harsher profanities of language. My mother said, “Darn it.” Even “Dang it” was trashy. And so I was spared from the reduction of emotions to obscene graffiti on a restroom wall.

Am I imagining it, or has the mentality of graffiti been translated to TV sitcoms? I constantly hear the f-word (and that is one of the milder profanities) on TV comedies. On Netflix and Hulu, it has become an integral part of the language of comedy. If the writers can’t think of anything amusing, the actors just say the f-word over and over. It’s like Greek comedy, you might say, but somehow it isn’t at all. Even worse, women in sitcoms now use the p-word and the c-word. “The word is vulva,” I tell the TV.

But back to the omnipresent f-word: it has been around since the fourteenth century, “says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Fast-forward in time… D. H. Lawrence was uninhibited with the f-word in his brilliant 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (banned till 1960). Henry Miller also wrote brilliant novels about sex, in which there is much f-ing. In Doris Lessing’s novels of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, she described sex from the female point-of- view, usually calling it sex, or, on rare occasions, “making love.” Lessing associates the f-word with the male point-of-view. In The Golden Notebook, she uses the word only once. “When George looked at a woman he was imagining her as she would be when he fucked her into insensibility.” In The Four-Gated City, Lessing again uses the f-word once. A highly-sexed man with multiple lovers says: “I’ve noticed with my girls, when they’ve been with a man, even their husband…–something gets switched off. Then you just have to start again, you have to have a good ordinary fuck to make the contact again.”

The f-concept does and did seem very male, because women are traditionally its objects, and the men are in control. Perhaps that is one reason why Kate Millet was so critical of Lawrence and Miller. And so I never use the -word in my own relationships. In sitcoms, the women have no control–they are looking for sex or love, and though they may have great careers, they will ultimately be the objects. Nothing changes, except the language.

The f-word probably became hip during the ’60s–that’s just a guess. In the next decades, my peers and I were not shocked by it, but we rarely used it, because we were readers and writers and knew so many words. By the time the f-word became hackneyed on cable TV in the 2000’s (or perhaps earlier?), it must have been strictly for commercial value. To hear it on TV was supposed to be funny. But are people really thinking, “Let’s watch HBO or Netflix because they use the “f” word”?

And yet I am not immune.

Doctor Zhivago

” F—ing Doctor Zhivago,” I said this morning when I shuffled into the mudroom.

The mudroom is unheated, the windows were frosted up, and I was reminded of the ice palace scene in the movie Doctor Zhivago. I opened the door to look outside and a blast of cold air nearly annihilated me. And that’s when the f-expletive escaped “my teeth’s barrier,” as Homer would have said.

Why couldn’t I have just said “damned Dr. Zhivago” or “goddamned Dr. Zhivago,” I wondered. Why did I have to choose the No. 1 TV expletive (it’s because it has seeped into the culture). And then I wondered which is the greater sin (“goddamned” takes God’s name in vain; and as for the f-word, the nuns never mentioned it)!

What if I start to sound like a heroine on a sitcom?

You know what to do, Kat. Turn off the damned TV.

Allergic to Paperbacks: The Desperate Search for Good Paper

Folio Society edition Middlemarch (2018)

It is three degrees! And that, I fear, is the high for the day. At any rate, my chapped skin tells me we are not due for a thaw or warmer temperatures. Like a rural peasant with chillblains in Thomas Hardy, I can now talk in hearty dialect and witchily predict the weather on the basis of chilblains. (I also read the weather report, of course.) My poor hands are raw and red, more so this winter than ever because of sanitizer. But, okay, in public places sanitizer is better than nothing.

And, in case you’re wondering, my rash also controls my reading. The pages of a book can soothe or sting, depending on the quality of the paper. Though I often state that I am a paperback person, I must for the present read hardbacks. The bad news: I’ve noticed a trend in new hardback books toward cheaper paper. I hope this doesn’t last: I have heard there’s a paper shortage.

A 1972 Folio Society edition of Middlemarch, illustrated by Brian Jacques

My reserve of hardbacks is smaller than my paperback cache, alas. Just the other day I complained about disliking some of the illustrations in Folio Society hardbacks. No more! I take it back! The paper in the Folio Society editions has proved so soothing that my rash recedes as I turn the pages.

And so I wondered if I could find a Folio Society George Eliot. Wasn’t there an attractive new FS edition of Middlemarch a few years ago? At the Folio Society website, it costs $125. Surely I could find a cheap used copy.

But, no! I have noticed higher prices at online booksellers lately, and perhaps they can make money on used Folio Society books. At one website there is an older edition of Middlemarch, with drawings by Robin Jacques, for $35.67 plus $5.86 postage. The cheapest used 2018 FS Middlemarch I can find is $171.83 plus $24.93 postage, more expensive than a new copy at the Folio Society. Since a used bookstore in the area used to sell them for $20 (that was a couple of years ago),I am very surprised. Perhaps it’s the pandemic? Fewer sales?

Illustration by Pierre Mornet in Folio Society edition of Middlemarch (2018)

I could, of course, “trade” my FS partial Jane Austen set for other books purchased by our Folio Society “collective”a few years ago. I loved belonging to a collective. It may not have been as important as reducing climate change, but reading is just as vital in its way. According to our hand-written “catalogue,” a friend in Marshalltown has a used Folio Society copy of Silas Marner. That is my least favorite George Eliot, but why not try it again?

Advise me on your favorite high-quality hardcover editions of classics, used or new. And who is selling cheap Folio Society copies? I am opening my comments again at this post for this weekend. Then I shall return to misanthropy!

Danielle McLaughlin’s Brilliant Novel, “The Art of Falling”

There is one good thing about the cold snap: I have done some reading. I was delighted to find a brilliant debut novel, The Art of Falling, by the Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin. Her graceful style is so nimble that I did not so much read the pages as inhabit the vibrant characters. And though I know art only as a museumgoer, I identified with Nessa, an art curator with a messy life, who is dealing with people who have even messier lives.

Nessa is thrilled to be in charge of an exhibition of the work of the late Robert Locke, her favorite artist. She has read everything about him, met him once at a lecture, and has spent weeks interviewing Locke’s difficult wife, Eleanor, and consulting Loretta, Locke’s adult daughter. She has negotiated the sale of his famous Chalk sculpture to the museum.

On a sentence-to-sentence basis, this novel is unputdownable. In the following passage, we feel Nessa’s excitement.

They were standing outside the studio where Robert Locke had worked on a number of his better-known pieces. Before the Lockes came to the house in the late sixties, the room must have been a sitting room. It was wide and bright, with two tall windows looking out to sea, another smaller window to the side, a ceiling with subdued cornicing and one bare lightbulb in the center. Gravity, nominated for the Turner in 1985 and now in the National Gallery, had been conceived and shaped in this room. Venus at the Hotel Negresco, known locally as the Chalk sculpture, was still here. Over seven feet tall, it commandeered the room, part human female, part abstract. The “chalk” strictly speaking wasn’t chalk at all, but a soft gypsum Locke had experimented with in his middle years.

Nessa is at the peak of her career. Finally, she has accomplished what she has always wanted. And then it is as though she wakes up from a dream: Melanie, a bizarre bag lady, shows up at the museum and claims that she herself collaborated with Locke on the Chalk sculpture, and that her name must appear on it. Just as the gypsum erodes, Nessa feels her work begin to disintegrate.

Nessa’s own life is in disarray already. There are triangles within triangles in the family circle. Her husband recently had an affair with the mother of their daughter Jennifer’s best friend, whom Jennifer has dropped, and, according to a politically-correct young teacher, bullied. Ant then the e troubled 20-year-old son of Nessa’s long-dead former roommate appears on the scene.

I raced through this book, which has the combined grace of literary fiction and a seamless pop fiction plot.

A good read for all of us! Cheers!

Happy Cold Snap!