Meditations on the Women’s Prize Longlist

The only book I’ve read on the Women’s Prize longlsit.

I happily rattled the virtual pages of The Guardian. The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced. This year I’ll finally read the whole longlist, I thought. Well perhaps not, but I have already read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: one down.

The longlist is very long. Seventeen books, only eight of which are published in the U.S. Now why these particular books, I always wonder? I ‘ll start with the diversity angle, because if they’re not diverse enough, everybody gets fired.

Four of the novels are by Black writers, one by an Indian American writer, and one by a trans (or is it Trans?) writer. In 2019 a trans writer raised a stink about not being considered a woman for the Women’s Prize longlist, so they changed the rules.

Bernadine Evaristo, chair of the judges, worries about being criticized for the lack of older authors on the list. She adds apologetically that Dawn French is the oldest on the longlsit at 63. She says, “In an ideal world, you want writers who are emerging and you want writers at every stage to continue to have good careers, so what happens when they get into their 70s and 80s? Is it that they’re suddenly not published, or they’re not submitted for the prizes? I also noticed that there isn’t much experimental writing being published, according to the books that have been submitted for the prize … Maybe publishers are just risk averse.”

I do not expect Evaristo and the judges to weigh every tiny statistic. Actually, Dawn French fills their “old woman” slot! But let me add that quite a few prestigious works of fiction were published by older women in the U.S. last year: 83-year-old Gail Godwin’s stunning novel, Old Lovegood Girls (possibly her masterpiece), 82-year-old Lily Tuck’s exquisite collection of stories, Heathcliff Redux and Other Stories, 68-year-old Alice Hoffman’s Magic Lessons, 65-year-old Gish Jen’s The Resisters (a great dystopian novel), and 66-year-old Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, another masterpiece. And these are only the ones I read.

Not to be controversial but isn’t it just safer for the panel to ignore old women than the trans? Nobody will protest ageism. Or if they do, they won’t be noticed.

As Isabel Allende says in The Soul of a Woman: “This is the era of emboldened grandmothers, and we are the population’s fastest growing group. We are women who have lived long lives; we have nothing to lose and therefore are not easily scared; we can speak up because we don’t care to compete, to please, or to be popular; and we know the immense value of friendship and collaboration.”

I am not a grandmother, but I know what she means.

And here is the Women’s Prize longlist:
1 The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
2 Small Pleasures by Claire Chambers
3 Piranesi by Susanna Clark
4 The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
5 Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
6 Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
7 Because of You by Dawn French
8 Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
9 Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
10 How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
11 Luster by Raven Leilani
12 No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
13 Consent by Annabel Lyon
15 Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
16 Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
17 Summer by Ali Smith

A Librarian and a Writer (1929-2021)

Lolly Eggers (1920-2021)

“Oh, no, not Lolly!” How could Lolly die?

It may be disrespectful of me to call her Lolly, but I feel I know her from her wonderful book, A Century of Stories, The History of the Iowa City Public Library, 1896-1997. It is more than local history: it traces changes in American public libraries over a century.

I was sorry to read of Lolly’s death. Since my mother died, it has behooved me to check periodically online to see if her peers are alive. Lolly, 91, was one of the last. And so I feel a little dazed.

Growing up, I was vaguely aware of Lolly. She was the mother of a schoolmate, which automatically made her boring; she was also the co-volunteer teacher of a somewhat saucy Junior Great Books group (none of us read Treasure Island, and we were dismissed). Then she finished an MFA and got a job at the public library . Unbeknownst to me until a few years ago, she was the director of the Iowa City Public Library for 20 years, 1974-1994. She lobbied to keep the library downtown when the Chamber of Commerce wanted to oust the library and use the space for businesses. And in 1980, under her watch, the I.C. library became the first in the country to have a computerized checkout and catalog system.

Iowa City Public Library

When I read about someone like Lolly, it makes me wish I were more like her. From birth (almost!) I was an avid reader, but I never planned a career. The library was within walking distance, and every week I checked out favorite books by Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, Kurt Vonnegut, Chaim Potok, Ira Levin, The Forsyte Saga, Fear of Flying, and let us not forget The Robe (the movie was practically required Easter TV ).

While I was reading everything in sight in girlhood, Lolly belonged to a book club that read Japanese literature. And when her kids were older she returned to school to to get that practical degree, an MLS, which she finished in 1969. If I had not stuck so firmly to the liberal arts and ignored the possibility that I would one day work, I might have followed Lolly’s example. It would have been stable, if not exciting.

Lolly Eggers

Her colleague, former library director Susan Craig, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette: “Lolly was very quiet, but with a core of steel in her. She was not a yeller … What she fought with was statistics and planning and thoughtful observation. She really moved the Iowa City Public Library into being a very modern institution that was respected around the country.”

Lolly was a history buff. In a video interview, she suggested someone should write a history of the small grocery stores. My grandmother and I used to enjoy going to Whiteway, which was downtown, across from the campus. Sometimes she had groceries delivered. And then one day Whiteway was gone. The small stores disappeared.

Lolly also wrote Irving Weber, A Biography. Weber was a local historian. There is a statue of him downtown.

So where is the statue of Lolly? In the works, I hope.

Smashing the Patriarchy: Isabel Allende’s Memoir, “The Soul of a Woman”

I am a longtime fan of the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, which was the first South American novel by a woman to be compared to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is her best book, or at least the one I love most, a family saga that traces three generations of a wealthy family through stormy personal conflicts and political upheavals in an unnamed country in South America. The patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, cannot control his wife and female progeny, who unswervingly follow their own paths. But as the years go by, he, too, is appalled by the violence of the new regime, and the family comes together. This utterly stunning novel is laced with magic realism, humor, and enchanting lyrical descriptions.

Allende is closely connected to her characters. A feminist journalist, she fled from Chile to Venezuela after her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, the first socialist president, was assassinated in 1973. She considered herself a journalist and wrote her first novel when she was 40: The House of the Spirits was published in 1982. A few years later a book tour changed her life: in 1988 she met her future second husband and moved to California. She has won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal for Freedom, awarded in 2014 by Barack Obama. And in 2019, she married her third husband, with whom she has discovered the joys of a relationship at a Certain Age.

I read her new memoir, The Soul of a Woman, in the hope of learning what was autobiographical in her fiction and what was pure imagination. Alas, it is not quite the book I sought, though it is excellent in its way. It is part feminist primer, part collection of charming anecdotes. The anecdotes are lively and entertaining, but this book is not very personal. She sketches the history of feminism, lectures us on smashing the patriarchy, writes vividly and indignantly about ageism, and speculates on the difference between free love and non-binary sexuality.

Yet Allende knows exactly where she’s going with this book: the first sentence establishes her theme, connecting her identity with feminist politics.

When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating. I was born in 1942, so we are talking remote antiquity. I believe that the situation of my mother, Panchita, triggered my rebellion against male authority. Her husband abandoned her in Peru with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. Panchita was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile, where I spent the first years of my childhood.

Such lovely writing! But soon she veers into politics. She becomes more explicit in her definition of feminism.

In my youth I fought for equality. I wanted to participate in the men’s game. But in my mature years I’ve come to realize that the game is a folly; it is destroying the planet and the moral fiber of humanity. Feminism is not about replicating the disaster. It’s about mending it.

Much of the book is also devoted to the work of the Isabel Allende Foundation, which she founded as a memorial to her daughter Paula. The Foundation is “dedicated to supporting programs that promote and preserve the fundamental rights of women and children to be empowered and protected.”

Barack Obama awards her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

I have to admit, I got bogged down in statistics, but I certainly admire her buoyancy and optimism. This memoir is beautifully-written, blessedly short, witty, and very political. Disappointing, in that I had expected a personal memoir.

And now I need to go back and read (or reread) her fiction.

The Vaccine: Vampires No More!

Today I received my second dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell you how thankful I am. What a trying year this has been! We have washed our hands compulsively, worn the double mask, and tried to social-distance in a world where few have a sense of their bodies in space. The boost from the vaccine makes me feel psychologically stronger. Later, as I whooshed on my bike past a large group of people monopolizing the trail, I did not, for once, wave a cross or sprinkle Holy Water. Possibly that does not work with Covid carriers anyway. No, I hope everybody, especially that group, gets vaccinated. And, yes, I am still social-distancing, etc., ad nauseam.

If I had futuristic Covid grandchildren, raised on ventilators or masks and expert at the art of social-distancing, I would tell them the story of the vaccine. Once, when our world was overpopulated and polluted, a few manufacturers developed recipes for Covid-19 vaccines. But the vaccines were in short supply, brewed apparently in small pharmaceutical cauldrons, and only available in diminutive quantities. Governments vied for the vaccine, but the factories delivered slowly. And so in the first months of the vaccine, groups were prioritized: precedence was given to health workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents, people over 65, and people under 64 with special medical conditions. The biggest problem was getting an appointment at the government website, which is like scoring a tickets to a sold-out rock Bruce Springsteen concert. Fantastically the site opened at noon but the appointments seemed to be filled at 11:59. But persist, dear people. Eventually…

Vaccines have ended so many epidemics and pandemics. TB, polio, the flu, mumps, measles, smallpox …. There is no downside to the vaccines. The Hummel child would not have died in Little Women! Jo would not have died in Bleak House!

I have no Covid books to recommend, but here are two novels and a memoir about other epidemics and pandemics, polio, TB, and influenza. The book descriptions are taken from Goodreads and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve (one of my favorite writers). Just after her eleventh birthday, at the height of the frightening childhood polio epidemic, Susan Richards Shreve was sent as a patient to the sanitarium at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was a place famously founded by FDR, “a perfect setting in time and place and strangeness for a hospital of crippled children.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, this 1924 classic is also a meditation on societal disease. Iain Bamforth at Lapham’s Quarterly writes, “the scholar Hermann J. Weigand called it ‘the epic of disease.’ It is more accurate to say that the novel is the epic of a particular disease, tuberculosis, one which has accompanied humans at least since they started building and settling in cities. But it is also, in a broader sense, an epic of illness—an ambitious attempt to show how being ill was experienced at a particular time in a particular culture.”

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

Happy Thursday Reading!

The Thornfield Hall Literary Quiz: What Were We Thinking of?

Avid bloggers and blog readers are all a bit mad when it comes to reading . Some commit to one book at a time, like their pre-electronic ancestors, while others switch from volume to volume, like the restless ex-urban Booktubers planning the Month of Mrs. Gaskell as a distraction from lockdown claustrophobia.

Interrupted by e-mail ads for bookstores and hourly updates on news that raises my blood pressure, I often have two or three books going, as a kind of reaction to electronic disturbance. My concentration is not dead: I have a tendency to get obsessed with a single book. For years I have been haunted by Henry James’s masterpiece The Golden Bowl. The sentence rhythms are hypnotic, and the characters have climbed out of a hyperrealistic Kent Bellows painting. And then there’s my personal reaction: I hate seeing bitchy Charlotte betray her best friend Maggie by committing adultery with Maggie’s husband, Prince Amerigo–especially after Charlotte marries Maggie’s rich father. This foursome is obsessed with collecting art and antiques, and, we must admit, people as well. And it all gets rather incestuous. There is a kind of calculated salvation at the end–and that’s the best we can hope for in a Henry James novel.

BUT THE QUIZ WILL NOT BE ABOUT HENRY JAMES. Thank God, you will say. I have moved on to a novel that is much shorter, if equally brilliant in a completely different style, and involves travel. Since I am very fond of this author and this particular book, I have made a literary quiz to share my enthusiasm. Can you guess the author and the title of the book? You do want to put the Thornfield Hall Literary Prize on your résumé, don’t you?

Start by reading the following passage. It may give you some clue.

THE QUIZ ITSELF

Answer the questions to find clues to the identification of the writer and the title of the book I’m thinking of. Good luck!

  1. Liza Minnelli played the outrageous heroine of the popular musical film ______ based on a book by this twentieth-century English author ______.
  2. A gay man was the hero of another movie based on a novel by this author ______ .
  3. The author was an activist for (a) the suffrage movement, (b) gay rights, (c) Civil Rights, (d) the National Rifle Association
  4. This pre-war glam city ______ features in more than one of his/her books.
  5. There are four narrators, all named ____, in the novel I am thinking of. (It is one of his/her later novels.)
  6. The four narrators of this novel spend time in Bremen and Berlin, the Greek Islands, London, and California.
  7. What is the novel? It is referred to in 5 and 6. And who is the author?

THE WINNER IS: ?????

Jill Biden’s Coffee, What I’m Reading, & Guerilla Housework

On the morning of March 1, Jill Biden went to Brewer’s Cafe, a Black-owned business in Richmond, Virginia, and ordered a cup of drip coffee. I gravitate toward fun features rather than political news, and was thrilled to discover “common ground” with Dr. Biden.

Jill Biden at Brewer’s Cafe

Jill Biden is a new kind of First Lady, obviously brilliant, an instructor of English at a community college, and she has an Ed.D. from the University of Delaware. A boutique coffee habit turns her into one of the java people. She was working: she stopped for coffee on the way to speak on a panel at Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the article at The Washington Post, the stop at the cafe is a light preface to the larger issue of her visit to the Cancer Center. The reporter possibly overthinks it: “Maybe the first lady wanted to support small businesses. Maybe she wanted to signal to Black Americans that President Biden was serious when he said his administration would not abandon them. Maybe she just likes places that are touted as having some of the best French macarons and coffee in their respective towns. Her press office would not comment.”

I may be naive, but isn’t a good cup of coffee the perfect brain boost before work? You can want good coffee, and decide to support a small Black-owned business.

By the way, I read a few weeks ago that the book on Dr. Biden’s bedside table was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I do hope she’s allowed to read this without being told it’s a photo-op!

And so it goes…

WHAT AM I READING? I just read Henry James’s The Golden Bowl for the third time, and am scandalized by the evil Charlotte’s schemes to commit adultery with her friend Maggie’s husband, Amerigo, her former lover. To make it more Jamesily intricate, Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver, a wealthy collector of art and antiques. In the introduction to the Penguin, Gore Vidal finds wicked Charlotte more interesting than Maggie. But my guess is that many of us women find ourselves siding with Maggie. This is an intricate, beautifully-written page-turner. Europeans always marry rich Americans in James’s novels.

GUERILLA HOUSEWIFERY. At the best of times, I have a hard time with housewifery. Clearing the surfaces of tables is the extent of my daily housework. I do not vacuum and scrub the floors daily. Marie Kondo had no effect here. You will not find me folding the laundry: my method with sheets is to roll them up and sort them according to fitted and flat. If they get mixed up…! That’s our life-style

I am still recovering from the weekend a friend stayed and decided to clean my house. I feebly begged her to stop, because I was too exhausted to help. When I went into the kitchen to grab a glass of water, she lectured me on why I should never mix bleach with…something! That would not be a problem of course, because it would never occur to me to squirt more than one cleaning product on anything! Plus did I have two cleaning products?

The gift of guerrilla housecleaning–and I do believe it was meant to be a gift– became just another contest in the never-ending tournament of femininity–I lost when I wasn’t even in the round!

“Remember when X cleaned the house,” my husband sometimes says.

“Please don’t use that against me,” I say.

The guilt of inadequate housewifery never stops, and studies of housework make me cynical. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, most women say they spend 5.7 hours daily doing housework and looking after the family. This raised a red flag for me: What housework, I wondered, do they find to do for 5.7 hours?

In this last year of the pandemic, I have begun to have a glimmer of compassion for cleaning maniacs. The house seems dirtier now that my husband and i both work at home, and it is not the time to hire a maid. The kitchen has become a treacherous repository of what I call “attack groceries”: a six-pack of paper towels falls off the refrigerator onto my head, I sweep up 100 blueberries after a box of blueberries jumps off the edge of the counter, I find rings on the coffee table when SOMEONE I love fails to use a coaster. I swear so much I need to cover the cats’ ears.

I need to reorganize the kitchen. But first I have to get a good cup of coffee.