Monthly Archives: March 2021

Tangled up in Headphones, Longer Days, and Literary Links

I love Daylight Saving Time. I metamorphose from a hibernating mammal into an exuberant human being. Changing the clocks (spring forward!) is a hallmark of spring. The worshippers of rosy-fingered dawn lament losing an hour but we see light overcoming darkness. Some states do not, or at least used not, to observe Daylight Saving Time: they were on “God’s time” all year round. But when twilight steals the sun at five o’clock, I histrionically mutter, “I wish I were dead,” and go to bed at eight. As long as I use the subjunctive of to be (were), I am fine. But if I mutter, “I wish I was dead” (the indicative), please ply me with healing subjunctive exercises.

Collection of vintage clock hanging on an old brick wall; Shutterstock

ARE YOU VACCINATED? According to the Atlantic, the U.S. is in good shape with the vaccination rollout, and the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the new strains. So let us hope we get on top of the fourth wave soon (though isn’t it really just one big wave?). Yes, I have been vaccinated, and I feel more secure. There’s a long way to go, though, with so many, many new cases every day.

MY NO. 1 PROBLEM WITH MASKS: The mask earloops recently got tangled up in my headphones. A delicate disentangling operation had to be performed single-handed in a store.

And now here are three Literary Links.

  1. I recommend Gal Beckerman’s interview with Paul Theroux, “Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?”, in The New York Times Magazine. His new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, will be published in April.

And here is a short passage from the article:

For six days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, dined on hard-boiled eggs, microwaved dal and wine.

He had set out cross-country in a rented Jeep Compass on the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he delivered boxes of his papers to his archives at Huntington Library, and then flying on to Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he observed a landscape largely emptied out by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Okla., and Tucumcari, N.M., where he stopped to sleep, to a rest area in Tennessee where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., on his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote out in longhand all he had seen.

2 At Tor, Melissa Baharddoust, author of Girl, Serpent, Storm, writes about “Persian Legends and Their Western Counterparts.” Here is a short passage:

While poring over Persian myths and legends for my novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I was always delightfully surprised whenever I came across a story that sounded familiar to me from my western upbringing. While I don’t have the expertise to speak to exactly how these stories found their way from one culture to another, or whether any of these stories were directly influenced by each other, I hope you’ll join me in marveling at the way some stories speak to and create common threads in all of us.

3 At The Guardian, Sam Byers explores the post-pandemic future in “We will have to choose our apocalypse: the cost of freedom after the pandemic.”

Here is a passage from the essay:

On one thing, at least, we were all in agreement: we wanted to be free. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on what that freedom looked like, or who should enjoy it. Even as new horizons of collective action and mutual support seemed possible, the urge to do whatever we wanted, free from the inconvenience of consequences, took hold with renewed force. Set against the freedom from infection was the freedom to endanger others by leaving lockdown; the freedom to do away with masks and sow airborne death in the supermarket; the right, via “unmuzzled” speech across high-profile platforms, to spread dangerous, divisive fictions. When finally the halls of US government were stormed and occupied, it wasn’t civil rights activists or eco-warriors posing for a selfie in the chamber, it was a loose conglomeration of angry and often baffled conspiracy theorists, splinter Republicans and Nazis, freely subverting the democracy they claimed to defend.

Keep well and Happy Reading!

Nowhere Woman: Self-Expression in the 21st Century

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the late 1960’s, my bourgeois family was killing me. While I lounged on the couch and read Charlotte Bronte, J. D. Salinger, and D. H. Lawrence, they sat in the finished basement watching Mission Impossible and The Big Valley. While I learned to read Tarot cards, they played cards. And there were the usual arguments about clothes: I hid my army jacket with the embroidered peace sign in the garage, because my mother thought it too tacky to wear to school.

I was critical of the educational system. I begged Mom to send me to Summerhill, a progressive school in England, but it was not going to happen when there were perfectly good public schools in town. At school I passed the days writing a journal and scribbling quotes from poetry and rock song lyrics. One day a music teacher busted me for not paying attention, and read aloud what I’d written about the meaninglessness of school. I was a hero for a day–a popular boy told me he admired my writing–but I was still humiliated. Once home I slammed into my room, cried a little, and picked up one of my comfort books, probably I Capture the Castle or Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes. And I looked for inspiration from a poster with a quote from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

There was a lot of noise and haste to filter out in those days. Poetry and rock songs helped. There was Emily Dickinson: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” There was Charlotte Bronte: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Perhaps Edna St. Vincent Millay was my favorite:

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

Rock music was the glue that held my generation together. I adored the Beatles and was devastated when they broke up. I remember how excited I was the first time I heard “Hey Jude.” I would half-listen to the radio for hours just to hear that song. My favorite Beatles album, Rubber Soul, was frequently on the turntable. I loved “Nowhere Man,” though I was never, never, never, never going to be a “Nowhere Woman.”

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command
Ah, la, la, la, la

I have begun to feel rather like Nowhere Woman, though. It has been a monotonous year of wearing masks, and I admit I don’t recognize my friends and acquaintances in their masks. I also seem unconsciously to have depended on lip-reading in conversation. Now I hear, “MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE.” And that’s what they hear from me, too.

As for self-expression, we can’t see each other’s faces. This is a small complaint, but it’s time to get out the Emily Dickinson and the Beatles.

Infinite Variations on Reimagined Myths

A quirky, neglected novel

I hadn’t supposed that mythological creatures lounged about discoursing in dactylic hexameter all day. Nevertheless, numerous reconcilements were required between what I had imagined a deity, even a modern one, to be and what the flesh-and-blood deity in fact was. But even with willing and alert adjustments, there were moments of incredulous silence on my side. – Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan

There’s something about a reimagined myth.

Readers love myths, and the retold or reimagined myth has been a popular genre for thousands of years. Even in the twenty-first century, when presumably fewer readers study classical mythology, the fascination remains. Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel, Circe, has been adapted as an HBO series (not yet released). In David Malouf’s short, perfect novel, Ransom, he reimagines scenes from the Iliad, focusing on Priam’s attempt to ransom the body of his son Hector from the implacable warrior Achilles. In 1999, Canongate commissioned a series of retold myths by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and other renowned writers. The first three books in the series were published in 2005.

Why are myths so popular? We are fascinated by the volatile antics of the gods and goddesses and the struggles of heroes (half divine, half human) unfortunate enough to attract their attention. Myths help us understand human dilemmas. They showcase the implacability and arbitrariness of fate. We pore over Greek tragedies, horrified by mistakes sometimes caused by unwitting hubris, but more often apparently by nothing, which end in disaster. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, we mourn the deaths of young soldiers, most of whom are farmers.

I prefer some retold myths to others. Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses is, naturally, the best. I stopped reading Madeline Millers’ Circe after an abortive attempt to listen to the audiobook, but perhaps I’d do better with the actual book.

And yet many worthy retold myths that were not best-sellers or well-publicized are worth reviving. Take a look at these four you may not have heard of. One might be right for you.

The dreadful cover of this mass-market paperback has nothing at all to do with the novel!

Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan. No one has read this book since it was published in 1985, except me, I swear. It is forgotten, neglected, wacky, hard to categorize, and the cover of my mass-market paperbook is not a good sell. In this witty novel, set during a magical summer in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, the heroine, Larissa, an amateur artist, participates in an ecology campaign to fight the development of condos on the riverbank. She also has an affair with the god Pan, who, it turns out, has been stuck in Minnesota for most of the century. (P.S. I just learned this fun read is available from Kindle, so it IS more or less in print.)

Homer’s Daughter by Robert Graves. In this neglected feminist masterpiece, the author of the Odyssey is not Homer, but Nausicaa, the intellectual princess and rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey.  I loved this novel: in fact, I’m due for a reread. Your may already be acquainted with Graves’s The Greek Myths, or his famous novel I, Claudius.

The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse by Jane Rawlings.  Published in 2003, this is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view. It is not a masterpiece, but the free verse flows and is easy to read. The plot does not center of Odysseus: when he returns from the war after 20 years, Penelope reveals that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure and hid them at her father-in-law’s house to keep them safe from enemies.  Both Odysseus and their son Telemachus feel betrayed by this revelation. Much ado…

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. I very much enjoyed this novella, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and Puget Sound. Due to a divine quarrel between Persephone and Hades, Persephone hides out in Seattle, working as a waitress who calls herself Lioness. During a summer that continues into fall because Persephone is not underground, Hades and Demeter search for her, but the real focus is on the human protagonists. Abe, a retired history professor and a blues fan, rents his garage to Persephone/Lioness;  and his longtime lover, Joanna, a fiftysomething flight attendant, is is not only sick of flying but worries about her lesbian daughter Lily’s crush on Persephone. This sweet novella is a myth about climate change.

What are your favorite retold or reimagined myths? There are so many to choose from!

My Favorite Booker Prize Winner: “Heat and Dust” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975, a long-ago year when elegant economy was preferred to the purple prose of baggy monsters. At a succinct 181 pages, Heat and Dust is a colorful small canvas as much as a novel. And her pitch-perfective simplicity strikes a chord that the brilliant Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, and Lucy Ellmann cannot reach in their long, complex, beautifully-written Booker winners. (Please bring back the short novels!)

On a third reading of Heat and Dust, I am still enchanted by the seamless interweaving of two stories of Englishwomen in India. One story is set in 1923, the other in the early ’70s (Jhabvala’s then-present). The nameless narrator, a young woman captivated by the letters of her great-aunt Olivia, has come to India to research Olivia’s history. Her pretty great-aunt had followed her husband Douglas, a high-level civil servant, to India of the Raj, but she was soon bored by solitary days and the tedious social life with Douglas’s middle-aged English friends. She embarks on an unlikely friendship with the handsome, charming Nawab, the prince of the region. After she leaves Douglas to live with the Nawab, the letters home dwindle and none of her relatives see her again. The narrator wants to know what happened.

The narrator tells her own story of India in vivid journal entries, describing English and American tourists who became disillusioned on a quest for spirituality, and her close friendship with an Indian family, especially Inder Lal, a government officer and her landlord. He is trapped in traditional family life and an arranged marriage to a sad woman who has seizures. After various sight-seeing trips together, the narrator and Inder Lal become lovers, who laugh and confide everything to each other in the dark. There are parallels between the narrator and Olivia: both fall in love with India and form bonds with Indian men. One is a prince, the other a civil servant, but their characters are shaped by the same culture.

How important is love? To Olivia, it was everything. She enjoyed her exotic adventures with the Nawab and their deep physical relationship. The experience is different for the quiet narrator, who values friendship more than romance. She is tall and flat-chested, and children chase her through the streets and call her hijra, a word for the eunuch dancers who look like men but dress like women and sing and dance. She ignores the the catcalls, figuring rightly that they will soon get used to her. Under the protection of Inder Lal’s mother, she makes friends with neighbors and women at the market.

But her goal is to retrace the footsteps of Olivia. She visits the building that was once Olivia’s house. She especially appreciates her visit to a famous shrine, where the childless women pray to get pregnant. It was the spot where Olivia went on a memorable picnic with the gracious Nawab.

The narrator does not expect anything of India: she simply wants to know the country and the life of her great-aunt. She is not nostalgic for England, and understands there is no magic in India: she is fascinated by the beauty and strangeness (and sometimes ugliness), and the relationship of the present to the past.

I would love to go to India, in the spirit of the narrator, but the heat and dust, the difficulties of travel, the tragic sights of beggars, the language problem (perhaps courses online) would be a challenge. After the pandemic, in the distant future, maybe a package tour. Who knows?

I understand that this is probably no longer Jhabvala’s India. Born in Belgium in 1927 and educated in England, she lived for many years in India with her husband, and moved to the U.S. in 1975. You may know her as the writer of many screenplays of Merchant-Ivory films, including Howards End, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

What is your favorite Booker Prize winner? I have discovered so many great writers that way, though, honestly, I have fallen behind in recent years. Time to catch up?

Why Is an Indian Sufi Master on My TBR? and Three Literary Links

I often surf the net and jot down titles of books I want to read. And then I look at the list and wonder why these particular books seemed so interesting.

Some books on the list do survive my next-day scrutiny. I yearn to read The Magic Doe by Qutban Suhravardi, translated by Aditya Behl. The book description says it is “an excellent introduction to Sufism and one of the true literary classics of pre-modern India.” I am mostly interested in the literary aspect of The Magic Doe: I am too practical for mysticism, and indeed I once started laughing during a lecture on Transcendental Meditation and had to leave. It seemed slightly cultish: some of my acquaintances moved to the lovely town of Fairfax, Iowa, home of Maharishi University. And I vaguely worried–some had donated money to the university–and I sometimes checked on them at social media to make sure they’re all right. (They always look radiant.) Like Kurt Vonnegut in his essay “Yes, We Have No Nirvana,” I am skeptical of TM, though I don’t doubt it has benefits for certain people.

And Now Three Literary Links

Something about Hester Prynne looks a little off!

  1. I am sure you will enjoy the following article: 50 Very Bad Covers for Literary Classics at Lit Hub. Emily Temple writes:

When a book passes into the public domain, it means not only that it’s available for adapting and remixing, but for reprinting and reselling with a brand new cover. Some of these covers are . . . pretty bad. Which, obviously, makes them very fun to look at.

I have collected a number of these very fun, very bad covers below. All of these covers are “real,” that is, attached to books that are at least nominally available for purchase, though many are digital covers for digital editions. You’ll find a number of covers from Wordsworth Classics, premier publisher of badly Photoshopped book covers, but many more from the wilds of digital independent publishing. Some are merely ugly; others make it clear that no one involved in the creation of the cover cracked open the book.

2. At The Guardian, I enjoyed the Top 10 Literary Matriarchs list compiled by A. K. Blakemore. I was pleased to see Livia from I, Claudius on the list. Now there’s a matriarch you couldn’t trust, if the rumors are true about the poisonings, etc,. but she was certainly powerful. To see her on the list shakes it up a bit!

Sian Phillips as Livia Drusilla in I, Claudius

3. Are you thinking about spring cleaning? The writer Helen Carefoot at The Washington Post says we are dealing l with enough pressure at home during the pandemic, and suggests we go easy on the deep cleaning.

She writes,

In a normal year, this might be the time to block out a weekend, pull up your sleeves, and lift a season’s worth of dust and grime off of every surface in your house. But with the emotional and financial tolls the pandemic has inflicted on so many, and with home having to function as a space for work, play and everything in between, it might be worth rethinking the mammoth spring-cleaning operation.

I agree!

My Weekend of Reading Kingsley Amis: The Staggeringly Dark Comedy, “Ending up”

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is one of my favorite academic satires. In academia, people seem to have lost their sense of humor these days, either from job insecurity or psychological insecurity, and perhaps Amis is not in fashion. The critic Patricia C. Spacks lambasted Lucky Jim as unfunny when she reread it for her book, On Rereading. Well, she is a professor emerita, and perhaps didn’t care for the caricatures.

Not being an academic, I have no problem with the ridicule of university life (which I loved, but still, it is funny). I always identify with a good anti-hero, and find the bumbling Jim Dixon endearing and goofy: I think of him as the adult counterpart of Holden Caulfield, only with much more common sense.

Jim teaches medieval history at a provincial university and despises academic scholarship, especially the article he is trying to write, “The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.” And so he alienates a lot of people (accidentally). But this all turns out much better than you would think!

I somehow didn’t get around to Amis’s other books until recently, except for the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Old Devils, which is a dark comedy about a group of old (and I mean very old) friends who are retired in Wales. But last week I decided to catch up with some of the Amis books on my shelf. Ending up is by far (so far) the most impressive. But let me interject that I did not understand where this was going for the first fifty pages or so.

I thought this was a charming Barbara Pym-ish comedy about a group of old people who decide to share a cheap house in the country. How practical, I thought, and how sweet. And it is true that there a sweetness about the conscientious, unlovable Adela, who spends much of her time running errands for housemates and organizing occasions like Christmas.

The other characters are decidedly less sweet. Her raging brother Bernard is a former drunk who has liver problems and a penchant for vicious practical jokes His former boyfriend, Shorty, with whom he hasn’t had sex in 30 or 40 years, is more or less a servant, and resents Adela and their self-absorbed housemate, Marigold, who spends most of her time writing letters. The most neglected is their bedridden friend George, a former history professor who had a stroke and nowhere else to go. With the exception of Marigold, who has children and grandchildren, the inhabitants of Tuppeny-hapenny Cottage are on their own.

Whether or not you like this kind of dark comedy, Amis is a superb writer. Every sentence is gorgeous, graceful, and buoyant to the point of bounciness. He really delves the depths of these not on-the-surface very complicated people. In the following passage that describes the very ordinary but heartbreaking life of Adela, who has never had a friend.

Her career in hospital catering, taken up after she had been told, without further explanation, that she was not the right type to become a nurse, had brought her into contact with thousands of people until her retirement in 1961. None of them had become her friend, in the sense that none had agreed to go to a theatre or a coffee-shop or a sale with her more than a couple of times, and so she had lived alone throughout her working life. Now, after Bernard had made his astonishing offer, that she could housekeep for him and Shorty, she was among people and, with all the difficulties this seemed inevitably to bring, happier than at any time since her childhood. Her only fear was of falling helplessly ill and having nobody to leave in charge…

Very sad… and but for the grace of God… This grim comedy is a masterpiece, with a shocking and sudden ending.

Breaking My Camera at the British Museum & Other Musings

A blue plaque in London

Once a year I take a selfie to chronicle my aging self. I do it because ten years from now I’ll look at it and think, I look so young!

We have drawers full of snapshots we have not put in albums. Travel has fueled the quantity of pictures. In London a few years ago, I took a lot of random pictures of blue plaques commemorating writers’ houses, bike lanes (my husband’s request), and a sculpture of a blue cockerel temporarily installed at Trafalgar Square.

In fact, I got a little camera-happy. Truth to tell, I broke my camera at the British Museum. I dropped it while snapping pix of ancient artifacts. I should have bought the postcards. Well… I did.

Tourism is so much fun. One lovely morning I found myself contentedly standing in front of Buckingham Palace, too late for the changing of guard, but perhaps better without. Then a group of people asked me to take their picture on an iPhone.

“I don’t know how to use this.”

Really, I didn’t. This would not end well.

I pushed a button. The wrong one, actually. “Sorry, you’ll have to get somebody else!”

Who took this pic of Mom and me?

After that I refused to take ANYONE’S picture. And, indeed, I come from a family of camera-shy women. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother declined to have their pictures taken, and, indeed, rarely deigned to use the camera. Someone else always took the pictures. Odd how these things get passed on, isn’t it?

But what a different era now! We document our lives in pictures on phones and the mysterious Cloud. We have selfies, selfie-sticks, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr, Youtube, Booktube, and so much more.

I try to imagine my grandmother taking a selfie. Preposterous!

But there is a historical relationship between the present OCD phone addicts and the videoheads of yore. A few days ago, when Oprah announced that her new Oprah Book Club pick is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead quartet, I realized Oprah may have been the first Booktuber! (Only it was TV.) Many a Booktuber could learn from her concise, enthusiastic style. Certainly achieving that is much, much more difficult than it looks.

Ah, if only we could travel again, without an iPhone preferably. I was thinking of India–under the influence of reading Rumer Godden.

Happy Weekend Reading!

Our DIY Year of the Pandemic

I wouldn’t try this if I were you.

It’s just another day of DIY trial and error during the pandemic.

“We need to call the computer guy,” I say.


“The return key doesn’t work.”

“We can fix it. Google it.”

Pray, God, no more DIY. As a result of barring handymen from the house, we have made “innovative” repair choices this year. For instance, the toilet is held together with a hanger, and makes me think of a porcelain mermaid having an illegal abortion. I wear my I’M PRO-CHOICE AND I VOTE button whenever I flush.

Then there is the loose new faucet installed by an actual plumber. I don’t understand the connection between the pipes and the sink, but my husband occasionally crawls in the cupboard to hook up various wires which tighten the faucet. And it works!

I really, really want new carpets, or at least to rip up the old ones and leave the wooden floor bare. The cats have scratched off all the carpet threads by the door in their nightly forays to crash into the bedroom. They have left a little web of white nylon threads. But this repair project will have to wait till AFTER the pandemic, because my husband wants nothing to do with it.

Now he stares at my computer. “Hm, what’s the return button for?”

“Suppose I’m writing poetry and want to start a new line before the margin. Then you hit the return button instead of the space.”

“Oh, are you writing poetry?”

“No, I’m not.” I am indignant that he would think me capable of adding more bad poetry to the horrifying junk I’ve read lately in otherwise brilliant magazines. “I need it for prose, too.”

And then I tell him what I saw the computer guy do once: “He pops the key out and uses a special vacuum cleaner to get the dust out.”

We’ve got a vacuum cleaner.”

“Maybe it’s not the same kind.”

But he’s already happily watching Youtube videos. Fortunately, the DIY stuff works at least half the time.

Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst

My motto comes from a song in Mel Brooks’ hilarious movie, The Twelve Chairs: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”

Hope for the best, expect the worst
Some drink champagne, some die of thirst
No way of knowing which way it’s going
Hope for the best, expect the worst!

The Twelve Chairs

I saw this film during a period of life when there were no worries. Everything was wonderful, everyone loved me, everything gave me joy! Brooks was so witty! Who knew that a comic song had such seeds of wisdom? This witty adage has helped me through many struggles, many illnesses, many crises.

Life during the pandemic has ripped apart our social routine. The winter was particularly depressing, not just the weather but the spread of Covid and the sense there was no place to go. No quick trip to the mall or afternoon at the movies. Perhaps a DVD of The Twelve Chairs

I recently got the vaccine, and do feel safer, though I am very cross that NOTHING IN OUR ROUTINE HAS CHANGED. It’s still about masks, washing hands, and social-distancing. As more people get vaccinated, this will (we hope!) change.

President Biden said in his speech that perhaps the Fourth of July will be our Independence Day from Covid, if people continue to get vaccines at the current rate. No big public events, but small get-togethers.

And so we breathe a sigh of relief as we cautiously hope for that boring 4th of July picnic in the backyard!

Hope for the best, expect the worst.

Reading with a Cold: Alice Hoffman’s “The Red Garden” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Down There on a Visit”

Here I am on a lovely spring day, stricken with catarrh. Never mind, I am an expert on the common cold. Apply Vicks to throat and chest, and then to the nostrils (forbidden on the label, but it facilitates breathing). Then choose some multi-symptom cold pills: make sure the label claims it treats EVERY symptom. You need a cure for the cough, the congestion, the body aches, the headaches, the dreaded flu, and hypochondria.

You also need herbal tea, which, if possible, somebody else should prepare. You don’t want to spend much time away from the vaporizer.

And if you’re lucky, you’re well enough to read. Here are two “reviewettes” of what I’ve been reading.

Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden. Hoffman, who is the American mistress of magic realism, is a critically-acclaimed writer with millions of fans. (Here on Earth was a selection for the Oprah Book Club.) According to a bookish newsletter in my email, The Red Garden is Hoffman’s favorite of her books. And it really is a masterpiece. I was charmed by this collection of graceful, delightful linked stories about the small town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. Over the centuries, the town is populated by strong, romantic women and handsome men, beginning with the founder, Hallie. In 1750, Hallie saves the first group of settlers during a glacial winter by milking a hibernating mother bear in a cave while the others quiver in a makeshift shelter. (She tells the pathetic group that it is deer milk, because they are such wimps.) And Hallie has a preternatural link with bears afterwards, as do some of her descendants.

Christopher Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit (1959). Isherwood planned to interweave these brilliant writings with The Berlin Stories (on which the film Cabaret was based), but these perfect sketches work brilliantly as a standalone novel. In four settings, from 1928 to the 1950s, this record of Christopher’s observations focuses on pivotal characters. In 1928, 23-year-old Christopher is dared by a distant cousin, Mr. Lancaster, to travel to Germany on a steamboat. Christopher has just published his first novel, and wants to prove his masculinity and gather more material for novels. And gruff Mr Lancaster has a soft spot for him. In 1932 in Berlin, Christopher has an eclectic social life, a memorable orgy, and many gay friends, whom he follows to a primitive Greek island owned by an eccentric, solitary rich man. In 1938 in London, waiting for the war to begin, Christopher is appalled when his gay working-class German friend Waldemar shows up in exile with an English wife. Waldemar does not fit in with the Christopher of the late thirties. In 1940 in Hollywood, Christopher writes movie scripts and meditates with an English guru. Then an acquaintance, the exotic, stubborn, infuriating Paul, telephones to say he is about to commit suicide. Paul, who has alienated and disappointed everybody, is a lost soul. Christopher lets him move in and introduces Paul to his English guru. They spend hours meditating together and, for a while, Christopher and Paul follow an extreme vegetarian regimen. I love Christopher’s character, so charming and accepting of people. Fascinating structure, perfect writing, an experimental novel but at the same time easy to read. A book to read and reread.

Stay Well, and Happy Reading!