A Literary Critic Criticizes Criticism and, Of Course, Amateur Reviews

How can readers reap the benefits of reading without a critic’s essay that criticizes critics and severely censures “amateur” reviewers? In a glumly fascinating essay in The Walrus by Steven Beattie, “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends,” Beattie scolds critics for dropping their standards and amateur reviewers for sub-standard reviews.

We have all read articles by critics about the heinous nature of unqualified bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, and Booktubers. But Beattie will surprise you: he thinks critics are almost as careless as the amateurs. While critics of yesteryear mastered basic writing techniques, such as backing up statements with examples from the text (Writing 101?), now they make unsupported statements with no pretense of documentation.

What to do in an age of bad criticism? Beattie is not completely negative: he finds an example of good writing. He praises the expertise of Canadian critic Donna Bailey Nurse and writes, “Nurse, as it happens, is also one of the handful of working book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique—willing to speak about an author’s language as opposed to a novel’s moral or social message.”

I agree with Beattie’s concern about the new emphasis on “moral and social messages” – though I wonder how moral the bluestocking “J’accuse” bacchantes really are. Are censorship and cancel culture the answer to disagreement and perhaps envy? There was Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a well-meaning novel about Mexican migrants making a long, weary, dangerous trip to the American border. Latinx protesters raged that she was white and that they should have written the book. The peculiar thing: Cummins was on the side of Mexican migrants. But she received death threats and her book tour was cancelled.

Beattie cites another problem: not only is the thinking fuzzy but reviewers’ clichés horrify him. He writes “…the number of ‘compelling’ or ‘riveting’ books with ‘fully developed characters’ and stories that ‘will remain in a reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned’ are positively legion.”

Oops! Who hasn’t done that? I must stop saying “compelling” and “page-turner.”

And Beattie also provides a model of a bad review. He writes,

…[in a review] of Jo Owens’s debut novel, A Funny Kind of Paradise, about a septuagenarian woman who has suffered a stroke and now lives in a long-term care facility, mentions the author’s “direct and unvarnished prose,” “richly drawn and complex” characters, and “rosy but not saccharine” tone without providing any examples from the text, essentially demanding that we take these things on faith. The review ends by highlighting the novel’s message—“There is joy and meaning to be found in every stage of life”—but refrains from analyzing precisely how the author forwards this message on the level of language, style, and craft.

Are you feeling humble, fellow bloggers? Well, probably not. I even chortled a bit. Beattie does provide useful tips in the topsy-turvy age of what we can only call “tell don’t show.” (“Show don’t tell” is forgotten.) Perhaps it is time for the professionals to put not their money – there is no money – but their writing where their mouth is.

A Rediscovery of a Literary Virtuoso: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories”

The month of May has rushed by. Lots of rain here – two weeks, actually – and more of the same in the future. So what have I been reading? This month, Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard proved irresistible. Whether you plan to spend the weekend on the lake (I wish!) or dilly-dallying at home, I am sure you will love at least some of these stories. Hazzard (1931-2016), an Australian writer who had dual citizenship in the U.S. and the UK, won many awards, including The National Book Award and The Miles Franklin Award.

Last fall Farrar Straus and Giroux published Collected Stories, which comprises her two story collections, Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses, and ten uncollected stories, eight of them published in The New Yorker and other magazines. As if this were not enough to keep us busy, Penguin recently reissued her award-winning novel The Transit of Venus. It is reasonable to say that Hazzard is back in fashion. And both books have been widely reviewed (or re-reviewed) by the critics.

I think of Hazzard mainly as a novelist, and I still have my 1990 Penguin copy of her 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus. I was intrigued at the time by her intelligence, grace, and nuanced writing, though, honestly, I remember little about the novel now. But I kept it all these years; it is now on the nightstand pile. When her National Book Award-winning novel The Great Fire, set in the aftermath of World War II, was published in 2003, I found it painful and uneven, almost too full of events, as it turns from a ghastly investigation of the ruins of Hiroshima into into an unlikely romance. But much of Hazzard’s life was in this book – she knew the shattering aftermath, having worked in the late forties for British Intelligence in Hong Kong, and in the fifties as a secretary for the UN.

I read the Collected Stories at my leisure, only one or two a day. Surprisingly, I preferred the energetic early stories to the later stories. I loved “A Place in the Country,” the second story in her first collection, Cliffs of Hall, which begins with the upacking of boxes in a country house. Hazzard shares this country house territory with Updike and Cheever: it is the place where intelligent, well-educated women read poetry and give dinner parties, while their husbands work in the city. (Perhaps Hazzard and Updike knew the same people.). And the opening of “A Place in the Country” is bound to hook avid readers.

“Try to keep the poetry separate,” said May. “The rest can be arranged later.” She made her way around the boxes of books and china to the doorway, and called up the stairs, “Clem, when you’re finished up there, you could help Nettie with the books.”

Not surprisingly, it turns out Clem and Nettie are having an affair. May has no idea: she is busy arranging objects in their country house, where she and the children will live for six months, while Clem works in town, coming down for an occasional weekend. Nettie is so in love that at one point she wishes – like an adolescent- that she could darn Clem’s socks. She is too young to understand marriage, and glosses over May’s potential pain: Nettie thinks the marriage must be worse than most.. But the love between Nettie and Clem turns out to be unequal. At the end of the story, Clem will tell her he should never have said he did not love his wife.

In “Forgiving,” Kate gets out of a party by saying her husband Lucas is sick. Actually, they sit in the woods, discussing Kate’s infidelity, and Kate assures him that she will never cheat again. “‘You leave me alone too much,’ she says”. Aa indeed, he does. He was away two months on a business trip in Africa. He snaps, “Well, one doesn’t go to Africa for the day, you know.”

I am especially charmed by the witty linked stories from People in Glass Houses, set in the offices of the Organization, which is a thinly-veiled U.N. (Hazzard worked at the UN for seven years.) She gently mocks the bureaucracy, the Methods of Enforcement report and the Advisory Commission on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the firing of a misunderstood anthropologist (Ashmole-Brown in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”), who then becomes a best-selling writer after he publishes the report he’d been working on at the Organization, and various other workplace events and scandals. The employees come from different countries and different backgrounds, but nobody quite understands how the Organization works, especially the idealistic character Mr. Flinders in “The Meeting,” who discovers he has taken insufficiently professional photos of people in a third-world country planting trees to stop erosion. A man with better slides has actually contributed to pollution with his mission, but no one has the background to tell the difference.

In “The Flowers of Sorrow,” the Director-General departs from the agenda of his speech to say, “In my country, we have a song that asks, ‘Will the flowers of joy ever equal the flowers of sorrow?” The audience is flustered. Some are annoyed that there has been no mention of the proposed change in retirement, or longevity increments. One of the English interpreters is freaked-out: “It would be better not to give us a prepared text at all than to make all these departures from it.” But two of the characters, Miss Kingslake and Mr. Willoughby, feel heartened by a feeling remark that isn’t on the agenda.

If you do not have time to read all the stories, do try People in Glass Houses. At first I didn’t “get” them and found them dry, but the employees of The Organization now hold a special place on my mental bookshelf of workplace fiction.

Doris Lessing Gets It Right: The Future of Earth (“Shikasta”)

Doris Lessing

First, I must insist that Nobel winner Doris Lessing gets it right in her “space fiction.” In her neglected 1979 novel, Shikasta – the official title is unnecessarily wordy, Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta – she unflinchingly relates the history and the future doom of Earth ( Shikasta), borrowing freely from myth and the Old Testament. The hero, Johor, a quasi-angelic agent from the galactic empire Canopus, shapes human history at the Edenic beginning of Earth, and works even harder to correct its course after agents of Shamat, a criminal (quasi-devil) planet, corrupt the humans. And so, more or less, angels and devils, inhabitants of planets with different systems of belief, compete for the good and bad in Earth/Shikasta.

You’ve got to settle in slowly at first, but soon you’ll be turning the pages. The mythic and Old Testament origin stories, the versions of the flood myth and the Tower of Babel, are clever but can be monotonous; the pace picks up when Lessing reaches the twentieth century and then unfolds the drama of a future that we are beginning to experience. Many of the characters, who shudder at the prospect of returning to Shikasta after death but must line up to be reborn, become activists in their new lives and struggle to help the starving, uneducated, sickly masses.

You will recognize the problems killing this planet : climate change, melting polar ice caps, poisoned water, polluted air, droughts, epidemics, World Wars, overpopulation, dictatorships, famine, genocide, the dominance of the military, poverty, riots, bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. In fact, this is almost our present, and this future was already irreversible in 1979 when Shikasta was published. Certainly we were well- informed about the environment, but the culture of fossil fuels was out of our control – particularly because we could never, as Lessing says, quite “take it in.”

Shikasta was the first of five books in the Canopus in Argos series. In general the critics disliked these novels, especially Ursula K. Le Guin, who, having traversed the same territory in some of her anthropological science fiction, perhaps felt competitive: she complained that Shikasta read like a debut science fiction novel. George Stade of the New York Times mocked Lessing’s SF but said she succeeds when her storytelling trumps her rants. And then he adds that he prefers the theosophic rants of D. H. Lawrence to Lessing’s. (Oh my God, I wonder if he ever suffered the rants in Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent. And I’m a fan of Lawrence!)

Well, no one likes a doomsayer, and Lessing is hardly an optimist. In the Iliad no one likes the Greek guy who tells the ugly truth. And I wonder if Lessing’s thorough documentation, written in the form of official reports, documents, letters, and journals, might have not only have bored some readers but upset them. It was too literary for science fiction readers, and too SF-y for literary readers.

Lessing reworks some of the material from her 1969 novel, The Four-Gated City, which is three-fourths bildungsroman and one-fourth science fiction. One of the characters, Lynda Coldridge, who has spent years in psychiatric hospitals but actually has a kind of supernatural ability to know things others did not, appears in Shikasta. A psychiatrist asks Lynda to writer about her illness: her papers tell us that “hearing voices” was more of a sixth sense killed and distorted by psychiatric care. And so Lynda and the psychiatrist fight heir own underground resistance movement as they look for others like Lynda.

The most important character in the novel is George (the agent Johor, the being from a superior planet who has helped Earth for millennia). He has been painfully reborn into a human body, so that he may help the luckless, starving, and ignorant by telling them thing that matter, cheering them up and helping them survive. But on one of his many walking tours (fuel is scarce and so is transportation), he writes a letter to his girlfriend Suzannah about his qualms.

…and when talk starts about the awfulness, then it is as if people are not hearing. Not that they are not listening. Not hearing. They can’t believe it. Well sometimes I look back and it is such a little time, and I can’t believe it. I think that dreadfulness happens somewhere else. I don’t know how to say that. I mean, when awful things happen, even to the extent we have all just seen, then our minds don’t take them in. Not really. there is a gap between people saying hello, have a glass of water, and then bombs falling or laser beams scorching the world to cinders. That is why no on seemed able to prevent the dreadfulness. They couldn’t take it in.

Today there are many Shikastans suffering: that has hit home during the pandemic. As Johor says, we thought “that dreadfulness happens somewhere else.” This is not Lessing’s best book , but it is a very interesting one. And that is the reason to read it.

Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want”: The Adjunct Economy

Have you ever worked as an adjunct? These part-time teaching jobs can be satisfying. But sometimes you find yourself teaching subjects that are not one-size-fit-all, like remedial English composition, quite often for a challenging population, a mix of refugees from war zones and middle-aged moms, many with a dicey knowledge of reading and writing – and some literally do not speak English. So if you have a master’s or Ph.D. in English, comparative literature, anthropology, linguistics or theater, prepare to improvise.

After reading a review in The Nation of two novels about adjuncts, I picked up a copy of Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning novel, Want. It deals with two kinds of want: poverty and the want of love. What happens to people who opt out of the system to work at untraditional jobs? This novel is about the economy.

The narrator, Elizabeth, is a quiet, likable 34-year-old teacher in New York, with a Ph.D. in English, two children. and a lovable husband who left his career to become a carpenter. Her rich parents give them no money – and she doesn’t want to take it, because they are such assholes. (They threaten occasionally to take away her children.)

Elizabeth holds the family together: she teaches one English class for graduate students as a university adjunct, and is also a full-time teacher at a charter school where the impoverished Black students are underserved. I’ve got to hand it to Elizabeth: she hates the high school job, but manages to make an impression on her students. The principal, however, finds Shakespeare irrelevant. Instead of inspiring students to discuss Hamlet, she is supposed to do “test prep.” And so she is transferred to teach seniors, who have already taken all their tests, because the principal says she isn’t trained in test prep. And so she loses the class she has spent almost a year with. She starts skipping out early.

Fortunately, her home life is congenial. She and her husband are very affectionate and have two happy, well-adjusted children. But Elizabeth is so tense she gets up at five in the morning and goes running for fifteen miles (or at least that is the number that stuck in my mind).

And their money is running out. What can they do? They file bankruptcy, but that is still not enough. Her husband is buried under student debt. Should they leave Brooklyn? Their building in Brooklyn is going condo and they can’t afford to buy. Privately, I kept thinking: they could live in relative splendor on much less elsewhere! But they feel that their only other option would be to live on a farm in Maine owned by her husband’s parents, where they would be snowbound three or four months a year.

This novel is mostly about the economy, but parts are also devoted to her quasi-sexual love for her best friend, Sasha, who lived near her when she grew up in Florida. These women were so close that one summer they lived together and went out every night to read their books at a bar, where beautiful Sasha meets various men and goes home with them. Elizabeth is jealous – she is so close to Sasha that she wants her to mock the men and go back to the apartment with her. But Sasha falls apart, has a mental breakdown after she falls in love with a man who doesn’t want her, and never seems to recover after a baby she wants dies in her womb. Elizabeth realizes that Sasha’s beauty doesn’t save her -that Sasha wants everyone to love her. And Elizabeth is too exhausted to continue the friendship. But she wistfully stalks her on Instagram, which Sasha never updates.

This is an intelligent literary page-turner, which I read in a couple of sittings. I won’t tell you the decisions Elizabeth makes, except to say they are unexpected. And one wonders, not for the first time, why doing a job well and drawing on your deep knowledge can make you so poor.

Two Depressing Novels: Dima Wannous’ “The Frightened Ones” & Doris Lessing’s “The Diary of a Good Neighbour”

I cannot identify my favorite critics: I barely seem to register their names. That astounds me, and yet it must be common for those who read many book reviews.

For instance, The New York Review of Books recently published a review of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a short, tragic Syrian novel which I would not otherwise have heard of – and yet I did not look at the name of the reviewer. In this delicate novel, two damaged people who have survived the Syrian revolution meet in a psychiatrist’s office. The sullen Naseem, a brooding writer who ought to have a DANGER warning on his lapel, wordlessly invites Suleima, a shy 40-year-old woman, out for drinks. Between drinks, they slice pills and pop them: these are prescription pills, not the recreational drugs of Bright Lights, Big City.

Identity becomes an urgent question for Suleima when she is unable to find Naseem’s books in a bookstore. He publishes under a pseudonym; his books are everywhere. He decides to leave Syria and gives her an unfinished manuscript of a novel – which is about her! If you’re depressed, like Suleima, you will soon descend into hell (and she’s already been there). In alternate chapters, we read Suleima’s narrative and Naseem’s book about her. The weight of history, her own, Naseem’s, and the country’s, is almost unbearable… And the two stories intertwine and get mixed up.

And so should I thank the critic, Lydia Wilson, a Research Associate at the Computer Laboratory and in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford? (I looked her up.) It is a tribute to her that I read The Frightened Ones, but I must stress that I was not the ideal reader.

Then, as if I were not depressed enough, I picked up Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour. This smart, realistic novel is one of two she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. It was an experiment: she wanted to see whether critics recognized her style without her name brand (they did not) and what reception they would give a “new” writer.

Lessing writes, “One of my aims has more than succeeded. It seems I am like Barbara Pym! The books are fastidious, well-written, well-crafted. Unsparing, unsentimental and deeply felt. Funny, too. On the other hand they are sentimental, and mawkish. Mere soap opera. Trendy.”

Lessing’s books are always remarkable, whether under her brand or not. So should I trust the critics? Apparently not!

Let me stress that I did not remember The Diary of a Good Neighbour was depressing until I embarked on it this week. It wasn’t depressing when I was younger! The Diary deals with the problems of old age, which became grim and apparent to me during my mother’s illnesses and at the end of her life. Lessing’s heroine, Janna, is a middle aged, glamorous assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her husband died, and she regrets she never really tried to talk to him. She keeps her relationships superficial. She did not take care of her mother or grandmother when they were dying: that task was her sister’s. Janna’s whole life is work.

By chance at the drugstore one night, she meets 90-year-old Maudie Fowler, a bent-over witch-like woman whose nose practically hooks down to her chin. Maudie wants aspirin, rather than the prescription pills that “deaden” her, and charming Janna expedites the transaction. Then Janna accompanies Maudie home to her rent-controlled basement flat – which is filthy, cold, and has treacherous old electric fixtures, a coal fire, and an outdoor lavatory.

Maudie refuses to go to a nursing home, or to welcome volunteers called “Good Neighbors.” Doing good has fallen into Janna’s hands. She brings groceries, calls an electrician, buys her new underwear, nad chats for hours to Maudie. Both women genuinely enjoy their conversation, but when Janna returns home, she spends hours washing the terrible smell off her body and clothes. Maudie’s flat reeks of urine, unwashed clothes, and worse. And yet Janna is now responsible for her.

Perhaps what interests me most this time round is Janna’s personal experiences. When her only friend, Joyce, the editor of the magazine, decides to follow her unfaithful husband to America, Janna understands that she has unwittingly been part of Joyce’s marriage for years: without Janna at the office, Joyce would never have had the flexible hours to work at home , save her marriage (though it is very bad), and raise her (horrible) two children. The loss of Joyce is more terrible for Janna than was her husband’s death. Poor Janna grieves.

I look forward to moving on to Jane Somers’s more cheerful second book, If the Old Could, in which Jane falls in love. Love is more sprightly somehow, though this is not a happy book, either.

But it’s Lessing. I mean Jane Somers! And so I must read it.

Do you ever come upon a book that is almost too depressing to read? This seldom happens to me, but when it does…

The Book Binge Conundrum: What Drives Us to Excess?

The twenty-first century is, well, different. So many books are available online – more than we could find at any physical bookstore. Now I have access to all of Thomas Hardy’s books, including The Dynasts: An Epic Drama of the War with Napoleon (a verse drama). Yes, the faded old hardcover copy sits on my shelf, very dingy and uninviting. My husband says, “You are never going to read that.” He is right, but I can’t weed it, either. I have read the rest of Thomas Hardy.

The question is: when did I decide I must read the complete works of favorite writers – even their worst? In general, it used to take a long time to find all their books. One read an author’s complete oeuvre over several months or years. Of course, I did binge on Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series. And over a period of years, I have read all of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Ovid, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, and Penelope Fitzgerald – and most, if not all, of multitudes of other beloved writers.

My fanciful theory: our brains clicked into binge mode at the beginning of the new millennium. The speed of Wifi gave us the capacity to trawl the internet faster and faster, and discover more books than ever. One friend at a small online provider wished publishers would take a year off from publishing so she could catch up! And then after we got Wifi, we found out about even MORE books. Too many, really.

Is this internet bounty the fount of bingeing? Today the word “binge” dominates popular culture. Books, films, and TV are lauded as “bingeable” or “binge-worthy.”

In 2016, NPR ran a three-part series, “Read, Watch, Binge!” In 2019 at Mashable, Chris Taylor wittily related his experience of binge-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours (“Lord of the Binge”). This is a common kind of internet whimsy. Naturally, I read with fascination, because I wanted to know how he kept awake.

At The New York Times in 2005, Julie Salamon wrote an excellent article about rediscovering Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels. (Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943). She had loved the series as a child, as had her mother, and in 2005 reread all 10 books over a period of several months. She inspired me to read them (not all ten, though). And Salamon’s rediscovery of the books was not a 24-hour binge; it was a labor of love, without a quick deadline.

At Goodreads, blogs, and other social media, avid readers plan the future. The groups list the books they plan to read months in advance. This isn’t my way, but in 2016, after Anita Brookner’s death, I decided to reread all her books. I perused four or five before realizing this is probably not the way we’re meant to read her. I admire her art and style, but best to space the books out. By all means, binge if you want to, though.

One Fell Swoop & Claire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground”

Our book club met for the first time in a year. We discussed Claire Fuller’s superb novel, Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Perhaps Fuller will win: her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. Fuller’s prose is hypnotic and sometimes devastating. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the simplest actions in society.

The novel is so resonant that the group discussed a real-life problem, and thus broke all the rules of etiquette in one fell swoop.

“Lynn is on GoFundMe,” Sue said. “She needs a hot water heater.”

In a dim corner of my mind, I had realized Lynn might face poverty, but this flash of insight rarely visited. Lynn was Emily Dickinson-ish, a sweet woman who stayed home and wrote poetry. She was one of those intelligent but withdrawn people who cannot quite cope, so she lived with her parents. When they died, things must have been very hard for her. She was so secure she never wanted to leave – and so she never did.

Tears were in Sue’s eyes, Lori whispered,”Shit,” Janet distributed Kleenex, I blew my nose, and Megan demanded, “How did this happen?”

“I heard she wasn’t doing well, so I cyberstalked her,” Sue admitted.
We knew poverty could happen – and yet it is dizzyingly unreal. Lynn had become convinced that we all looked down on her, and hung up when we called. Only Sue broke through that barrier.

We decided to give some money, whatever we can.

We did not dwell on Lynn’s plight after we formed our plan of action, and so we did enjoy our book discussion. Illiteracy is Jeanie’s biggest problem, one that allows others to take advantage of her. Jeanie cannot read, and when she finds a job as a part-time gardener the checks pile up, because she does not know how to cash them. Julius does odd jobs for cash, but spends most of it at the pub.

But savvy Jeanie must solve their problems. She is appalled when Julius decides they should live in a dumpy trailer in a no man’s land. Hooligans stalk and victimize the twins in the woods. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as smart Jeanie learns how to navigate society, despite her learning disability.

This resonant novel will make you think about poverty and homelessness, you will find hope through Jeanie’s quick learning, and you will race through the well-written pages.

A Simpler Time: Bridge Clubs & Borges

We are, in a way, lucky to live in the U.S. this spring. According to the White House, approximately one-third of the U.S. population, 100 million American adults, are now fully vaccinated. The number of Covid cases has fallen to pre-October levels, except in a few hotspots like Oregon (a hip state – so there’s a surprise!) and Wisconsin.

It has been a dangerous time, with the U.S. suffering an unnecessary number of deaths, due to the lack of consistency in mask mandates and health precautions from state to state. Now we breathe a sigh of relief because we have been vaccinated. We wear masks in public, but not always double masks, and we feel relatively safe, as compared to always in danger.

The greatest problem here: to persuade anti-vaxxers and the too-hip-to-get-sick to get vaccinated (no appointment necessary at many sites). This negotiation process will apparently be slow. According to the Washington Post, about one-fourth of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine – and many of them are white Republican males.

Last year was disastrous. We knew little about the virus, we were afraid of library books (some people quarantined them), some states were under lockdown, others not, and, at the height of housewifely insanity, we disinfected doorknobs several times a day.

Maybe it is because of spring, but suddenly I have a more positive outlook. I try to appreciate the slower pace of life and match it to my mother’s: her favorite decade was the ’60’s, when she was home full-time, standing there ironing (like the woman in Tillie Olsen’s story) in front of her favorite soap, As the World Turns. With no internet and no constant connection of the cell phone, she had more time to be present with us, to sit on the back stoop with neighbors. (When she was old, she lamented that people didn’t “neighbor” anymore.) She and her friends, to an extent, made their own entertainment: she enjoyed hosting bridge clubs, fussing about the decorations and prizes, worrying about making coffee in the percolator (she didn’t drink it herself, and didn’t know whether it was good or bad, but it had to be served!).

Mind you, I will not join a bridge club: the only clubs I join are book clubs, since the Drones Club (in Wodehouse) is not open to women (ha ha). But it is calming to avoid the crowd at the mall, unplug the computer occasionally, and read the books on our shelves while we wait for the latest Jhumpa Lahira, which I long to read, but have decided to wait for the paperback instead.

I am not exactly trying to be “mindful,” because I doubt that I can be mindful – but slow time is not necessarily empty. Perhaps I am trying to say, We need boredom? That’s what they say.

Jorge Luis Borges à Biarritz le 27 septembre 1980, France.

My husband and I had a sad conversation the other night. “Do you remember when we attended literary readings in person?”

Yes, we even saw Borges, though we don’t remember what he said or read. We should have taken notes. Why didn’t someone tell us?

So very, very many opportunities. And that was normal life!

We do not know what the future holds, but it is too late to roll it back.

Carpe diem! Horace said it, and so do we.

May Day Musings & The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Such a lovely May Day! Almost too lovely – and too hot! I sweated in front of the fan as I mused on May-Day traditions. In the twentieth century, we used to rise at dawn to make paper cones, fill them with violets and flowering weeds, add tiny scrolls on which we had copied poems, and drop the “May baskets” on friends’ porches. A charming custom, which has faded into oblivion.

It was hot when I got up – much too hot to believe it was May: eighty-seven degrees. And so I devoted myself to sitting still and reading a remarkable book, At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Readers of this blog will already know my fondness for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust. A writer of Polish and German descent, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in India for many years; later she lived in New York and wrote screenplays for Merchant Ivory films. I am especially captivated by her exceptional short stories, some set in India, others in England and the U.S. They have the best features of her novels: a simple but percipient voice and style; a compassion for displaced characters; and perfectly-etched descriptions of scenery.

Jhabvala’s characters become our friends and relatives as we read. We understand the comic determination of Nalini, the homesick Indian girl in “A Course of English Studies,” who seduces her married professor at a Midlands college in England; and the exhilaration of Sofia, the depressed wife in “Desecration,” who falls in love with the corrupt Superintendent of Police.

Many of Jhabvala’s stories reflect aspects of Western masterpieces, as seen through a mirror of Indian culture. The first sentence of “Desecration” conjures the tragedy of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: “It is more than ten years since Sofia committed suicide in the hotel room in Mohabbatur.” Sofia is a vibrant, pretty woman who comes from nowhere. No one knows her background or who she is – she looks to be part Afghan “with a dash of Russian”- and her only talent is for entertaining important guests at dinner parties. Her husband, Raja Sahib, is thirty years older, so we understand why she falls for the dynamic, much younger SP (Superintendent of Police). And then she blinds herself to the degradation of their meetings in a sleazy hotel. In this short pitch-perfect narrative, we feel both sympathetic and annoyed by Sofia on her downward path.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Sofia is not the only woman in Jhabvala’s stories to fall in love with a cad. In “A Spiritual Call,” Daphne meets an Indian swami in London. After traveling to his ashram in India, she becomes disillusioned with his hypocrisy and fakery, yet she cannot break away. And even I cannot help but be charmed by Swamiji when he says, “Can I talk to you? You won’t turn into a laurel tree?” (You know me, the Ovidian.)

Sometimes even female characters become spellbound by female dissemblers. In “Great Expectations,” the solitary, self-satisfied Pauline, a canny real estate agent, has shown many properties to Sylvie, a blond, wan, indecisive client, and her daughter Amy, but Sylvie never signs a lease. The two are kicked out of a friends’ apartment, so Pauline allows them grudgingly to stay at her house for a few days… which turn into many days. We cannot help but think of Daphne and Swamiji when Pauline becomes mesmerized by Sylvie and Amy and their dream of going to India.

The stories in At the End of the Century were chosen by Jhabvala’s family, and span the time from 1963 to 2013 (the year she died). I had read many of these stories before, but I found them mesmerizing a second time.

And that is the test of a great book, don’t you think? Good books are fine for one reading, but great books delight again and again.