What to Read on Memorial Day Weekend: T. C. Boyle’s “Talk to Me”

It’s Memorial Day weekend. The smoke from Alberta has evanesced, and now we’re breathing backyard barbecue. Better than barbecue,  I blasted through T. C. Boyle’s Talk to Me in a day.

It is a novel about animal rights.  It begins when Aimee Villard, a student who has trouble communicating , watches an episode of a  game show, “To Tell the Truth.” The celebrity judges must decide which of three contestants is the real Professor Guy Schermerhorn, an animal behaviorist who has trained Sam, a young chimp, to speak in sign language.  

Aimee recognizes Guy immediately by his professorial manner and intelligence:  she also thinks she has seen him around, because her university in California is doing this research. And she is charmed when she sees the chimp Sam, in a polo shirt and diapers, run across the stage and jump into Guy’s arms.

Aimee gets a job working at the lab – actually a very nice house – and immediately becomes Sam’s favorite person. She has a mother-son  relationship with Sam:  they play hide and seek when he signs, PLAY ME HIDE SEEK; she names the objects in magazine pictures and Sam signs the words; and she even sleeps with Sam at night, because he has separation anxiety.  When a news reporter asks Sam what his favorite thing is, first he signs PIZZA, then he changes his mind and signs AIMEE.

Boyle’s writing is taut and  intelligent, and he sketches the believable inter-species family dynamics.   Guy and Aimee become lovers, mainly because they are always together, and they share a common interest, Sam.  Guy is the distracted father, worrying about money, marketing, and publishing his research, while Aimee is Sam’s loving mother, improving Sam’s life with her care and unwavering attention. 

Naturally, any idyll has its drawbacks. Sam is very much like human beings, but he has the potential to be violent, simply because he is so strong.  On Aimee’s first day, Sam has bitten one of the assistants on the cheek:  the woman will have to have surgery, and there is talk of lawsuits. (Sam signs, SORRY, but it is not enough.) 

Everything calms down with Aimee at the house – she takes over the role of Guy’s ex-, Melanie, who used to be Sam’s main caregiver. But then there is a tragedy, due to the greed and calculation of the cold, money-obsessed researcher who owns Sam and has let Guy “borrow” him..

Boyle captures the angst of the separation of Aimee and Sam when Moncrief, a one-eyed professor in Davenport, Iowa, says that the grant money is running out and he must take Sam back to Iowa, where  he may sell all his chimps to medical researchers. Like any adoring mother, Aimee is heartbroken.  She follows Sam to Iowa, where he and other chimps are tortured and never leave their cages.  Aimee eventually frees him, and she and Sam go on the lam. 

But it isn’t as easy for Aimee and Sam as it was for Bonnie and Clyde, she realizes wryly.  Can an animal rights activist – really a mother – save her chimp son?

Talk to Me is brilliant, fascinating, and heartbreaking.  A great read!

In Which Someone Hosts a Right-Wing Rally

No one was as surprised as I was when our blue state went red in 2016.

The Republicans have since cut Planned Parenthood funds ( five Planned Parenthood clinics have closed), proposed legislation to prosecute librarians and possibly send them to prison for supplying “banned” books, and have slashed funds for state universities and private colleges.

Here is a typical day in an indignant Democrat’s life.

May 23, 2023. Right-wing rally in the neighborhood! Flags on curb AND flag flying on pole above door of building!

SUVs, pick-up trucks, and Hummers line the street and usurp all the parking spaces.

7:30 p.m. …The cameras have arrived! (“Get off our lawn, please!” )

A sound system gently blares. Speeches very dull. Soon they will purloin a song by The Pretenders or Bruce Springsteen and try to make it their own.

Had we known earlier, we would have supplied ourselves with signs: “REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS,” “WE READ BANNED BOOKS,” and “STOP CLIMATE CHANGE.”

Note: Must now blast rebellious rock music in response to their red-state frenzy. We recommend John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”

Be sure to bring your boombox !

A Betsy-Tacy Addendum: I Was Wrong about the Hookah!

In my post on Maud Hart Lovelace’s autobiographical Betsy-Tacy books, I made an error about a hookah. During our long-ago trip to Mankato (Lovelace’s hometown), a  Betsty-Tacy fan insisted that a Syrian immigrant smoked hashish in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.

I wrote, “May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word ‘hookah. He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?”

This morning I checked the chapter called “Little Syria” in my copy of Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Hill.  And there is a hookah!

O Di Immoratales! Why I Want to Move to Mankato

I would love to move to Mankato, Minnesota, the hometown of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the autobiographical Betsy-Tacy series.  It is a lovely, small university town – but not too small – known as Deep Valley in Lovelace’s charming novels. The downtown has changed over the years – most of the stores are now vacant, and there is no sign of Betsy’s father’s shoestore- but Betsy/Maud’s house and her friend Tacy’s have been restored as museums by the Betsy-Tacy Society

I am a fan of the Betsy-Tacy books, as are several celebrities, among them Anna Quindlen, Laura Lippmann, and Bette Midler.  Lovelace’s ten-book series is a women’s bildungsroman, and Lovelace a midwestern Louisa May Alcott. 

Set in the early twentieth century, the Betsy-Tacy series follows the lives and adventures of two best friends, Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.  The first novel, Betsy-Tacy,  describes the meeting of Betsy and Tacy in kindergarten, and in the subsequent books Lovelace takes us downtown, over the Big HIll, and t all the way up to high school grduation, Betsy’s trip abroad, and Betsy’s wedding. 

Readers are especially fond of Betsy, the real heroine; Tacy is a quiet, smart Catholic girl, relegated to the role of sidekick.   Betsy has a vivid imagination and lots of plans: she is also an aspiring writer who writes stories and verse at a desk that was formerly her Uncle Keith’s trunk.  (Uncle Keith is an actor).  Her mother fosters creativity: Betsy’s  older sister, Julia, wants to be an opera singer.   

The family has always praised Betsy’s writing, but a high school a teacher  criticizes her work unkindly.  Betsy’s mother and two sisters are indignant, but Mr. Ray is equable: “It wouldn’t do Betsy any harm to learn about commas.”  This spurs more indignation: Mrs. Ray points out that no one worried about Shakespeare’s commas, and Julia suggests that Betsy may be the next Shakespeare!  How wonderful to have such a supportive family.  

In high school, there is much singing around the Rays’ piano, making fudge, and ice-skating, or, in Betsy’s case, shivering by the pond drinking cocoa and making excuses not to skate: she has weak ankles and is unathletic. (I related to this.)

I had not remembered that Betsy took Latin, but she and her friends treat it as an amusing secret language.  They often exclaim mysteriously, “O di immortales!”  (“O immortal gods!”)  The sophomores, Carney and Bonnie, like to quote the opening sentence of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (“All Gaul is divided into three parts”), while Betsy, a freshman, can only conjugate the verb amare (to love).  The  girls spend so much time giggling over Latin that Carney’s boyfriend Larry calls them a triumvirate.

“Girls, we’re a Triumvirate,” cried Carney, dimpling.  “I want to be Caesar.  He’s so cute in the pictures.  You can be Crassus, Bonnie, and Betsy, you can be Pompey.”  

This sounds like the kind of absurd thing my friends and I used to laugh over! Were we influenced by Betsy and Tacy?

Years ago my husband and I biked on the Sakatah State Trail, a 39-mile trail which starts (or ends, depending on your point-of-view) in Mankato.  There were no Betsy-Tacy museums then, but we found a self-guided Betsy-Tacy tour brochure.  We walked past Betsy’s house and Tacy’s house – you could look at the exterior but could not go inside back then – and looked at a few other landmarks. Then we rested  on the Betsy-Tacy bench on the Big Hill.  (The third book is called Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.)  While we were swigging from our water bottles, a barefoot stranger meandered across the street and offered to take our picture.  She was genial and gabby: she  animatedly insisted  that in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill,  an elderly immigrant in Little Syria is  smoking hashish in a hookah.  

May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word “hookah.” He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?

Such are the problems of post-modern Betsy-Tacy criticism. 

The Makeover: Cancel That Appointment!

“Oh, no.  No, no, no, no!” I stared at the mirror.  I wasn’t crying – yet.  But if there’s one thing I knew, it was that I had to cancel my doctor’s appointment.  If she saw me looking like this, God knows what medication she would prescribe.  I could only hope for tranquilizers.

You know, looks have never mattered to me. The trick to aging gracefully is not to look in the mirror.  I love my bathroom mirror – the light is very mellow in there – and though I look a bit older, the wrinkles seem to stay in the shadows.  

And then I made a mistake.  I looked in a full-length mirror in a bright light.  I screamed, “THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT!”

I changed my clothes several times, but it didn’t do anything for me. Would I look more acceptable in a black dress that has been on the floor of my closet since 2000?  How about black pants and a simple blouse – my funeral wear? No, it looked too funereal.  I settled on jeans and a t-shirt – a lifelong favorite.

There was nothing to do about my face.  I have a magic dermatological cream, which sort of fills in the lines, but turns my face red.  It depends on my level of desperation whether I use it or not.  It’s a night-time thing:  I don’t think an hour would do anything.

 How about makeup?  I never wear makeup.   The  one time I submitted to a makeover, the cosmetician and i were equally horrified.

“Just wear eyeliner,” she said brightly.

“Can’t be done.  It hurts my eyes,” And it gives me conjunctivitis!

Then there’s my hair.  Would dyeing it make me look younger?  Could I possibly dye my hair between now and my doctor’s appointment?  It seemed unlikely.

And then I realized that the frazzled doctor wouldn’t notice:   I was just another aging woman!  All she cared about was the numbers!

And so I didn’t cancel the appointment.  I would have preferred staying home and crying over an old movie with Olivia de Haviland, but we don’t always get what we want. I did get some pills. Allergy pills!

Next time I go to the doctor, I will have changed my appearance completely.  I plan to change into a wistful, aging sylvan Ovidian dryad with green hair and green clothing.

 The great thing about aging is that you’re invisible!  Still, I like the idea of being an aging sylvan dryad.  Now that would be a true makeover.

Women in “Women in Love”: Did Gudrun Kill Gerald?

Years ago, when my friend H and I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, we loved it but could not help but satirize it.  Lawrence writes elegantly and brilliantly portrays the women characters, Ursula Brangwen and her sister, Gudrun, but the dialogue is too intense, almost silly.

For a short time H and I called each other Prune, Ursula’s nickname for Gudrun. “Don’t you really want to get married, Prune?” We might quote, laughing.  

But we both liked the Brangwen sisters, who are perhaps Lawrence’s most interesting, believable women characters.   Ursula, a bored teacher, has had sexual relationships but does not think much about marriage. Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London to the Midlands, is smouldering with boredom:  she wants something, but is it marriage?

Lawrence preaches about love and sex in all of his novels.  Ursula is drawn to Rupert Birkin, a school inspector who plans to quit his job and travel,  but he drones on and on about going beyond love – he doesn’t want mere love – and wants a perfect relationship with a woman and a man. Annoyed,  Ursula asks, “Aren’t I enough?” Birkin admits he loves her. They do get married.

Gudrun is arrogant and censorious. She is unkind to her boyfriend, Gerald Crich, the rich, devastatingly handsome owner of a colliery.  The two couples, Ursula and Birkin and Gudrun and Gerald, take a vacation together in the Alps.  It begins well, but Gudrun’s cruelty to Gerald drives Ursula and Birkin to leave early.  Gudrun spends most of her time in the lodge talking to a fellow artist, a misogynistic gnome of a man.  Her neglect and mockery of Gerald ends in tragedy. The question:  Is Gudrun a killer?  Unforgivable, if not quite a murderer.

On a lighter note, Lawrence has an interest in women’s fashion. His description of clothing is a welcome distraction from intensity.  Gudrun has original clothes, perhaps inspired by her time in bohemian Chelsea. On a walk to a wedding, Gudrun wears grass-green stockings, a large grass-green velour hat, and a full coat, of a strong blue color. “What price the stockings?” someone calls.   Coming out of the church, Gudrun and Ursula recognize Hermione, a rich woman who is a hostess/patron of the arts.  Hermione wears odd, expensive clothes:  “a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color….  Her shoes were of brownish-grey, like the feathers on her hat.” 

Gudrun’s colorful stockings always attract attention.  Ursula is thrilled when Gudrun gives her three pairs of thick silk stockings.   

“I can’t take them from you, Prune,” she cried.  “I  can’t possibly deprive you of them – the jewels.”

“Aren’t they jewels?” cried Gudrun, eyeing her gifts with an envious eye. “Aren’t they real lambs!”

Lawrence wrote that Thomas Hardy was the best Victorian writer – in fact, the only one he thought worth reading – and we can see Hardy’s influence.  Hardy wrote devastating tragedies: he was condemned for immorality. Of course, Lawrence’s books were banned, Women in Love among them. The  villain in Women in Love is a woman, though perhaps Lawrence, with his complicated philosophy, would have blamed it on society, or even fate. 

No Mow May: Less Is More

Almost cut my hair
Happened just the other day…

But I didn’t and I wonder why
I feel like letting my freak flag fly – “Almost Cut My Hair,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash

 The No Mow May movement arrived here with little fanfare.  A few people quietly began to let their freak flags fly – that is, stopped cutting their grass – and vowed not to mow in May.  The trend caught on:  there are now hundreds of shaggy lawns in town, of the kind complained about by neighbors and cited by the city. But the non-mowers are confident that the tall grass will attract bees and pollinators for wildflowers and other plants.

The No Mow May movement began in the UK a few years ago, and has finally crossed the oceans, mountains, wildfires, and prairies to our city.  It is official:  the mayor has endorsed it. And residents will not be fined for unruly lawns till June 1.

On a walk today, I saw many No Mow May signs. They seem to have popped up overnight. I’m interested and amazed by the many earnest signs in our neighborhood, which have ranged from mostly Democratic political signs (I saw an old Bernie sign recently) to Black Lives Matter to Pro Choice to We Are Invested in Our City.  But put up a sign and then what?  Finally, here’s a movement that requires no action.

I am impressed by the “grassroots” commitment of the No Mow May supporters. Today I gazed at a lawn so tall that it almost obscured the small house standing behind it.

 Yet they seem a bit naive about the consequences of No Mow May.  At the end of the month, when they try to mow a 12-inch-high lawn, their mowers – push mowers and electric mowers pollute less than gas, by the way – will not be up to the job. They will need a scythe,  or perhaps some high- polluting lawn service. .Some experts advise cutting the grass a few inches at a time during May, so as not to stress the grass at the end of the month and dislodge the pollinators. 

At our house, we have always been into mowing less.  Indeed, we should all progress from No Mow May to a grass curation program.  Deciding when to mow, by observing the demands of growth during rainfall or the stress of dry weather and drought, is more practical than following a schedule and causes less pollution. This system has brought bees, pollinators, and butterflies to our yard, though not without mosquitoes, ticks, and flies.

What this country needs is a charismatic leader of a do- less environmental movement that achieves more than doing nothing Perhaps Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune or Austin Train in John Brunner’s The Sheep Looked Up would be up to the task? 

I’m turning to fictional characters. Any real-life candidates?

(And I wrote about The Sheep Looked Up here. )

Disdain for an Aging Woman: A Translation of Horace’s Ode 1.XXV

Horace is one of my favorite Latin lyric poets, and he is certainly eclectic. His oeuvre includes love poems, satires, eulogies of Augustus, mythological retellings, criticism of poetry, praise of wine, and Epicurean philosophy. His odes, epodes, satires and epistles are puzzle pieces of an alien Roman culture that blends and mirrors the influence of the Greeks.

Horace is a brilliant and charming poet, but has flaws from a modern feminist perspective.He is a misogynist, and  never more so than in hostile poems about aging women.    

I have written a prose translation of Ode I.XXV as a glimpse of Horace’s attitude toward an aging, once irresistible woman. The editor of my very old Latin edition of Horace gives Ode I.XXV an English title, “Lydia, Thy Charms Are Past.”

Here is my prose translation.

The bold young men rap less often on your shutters with repeated knocks, and they do not take away your sleep. The door that easily moved the hinges now loves the threshold, and now you hear less and less:  “While I spend long nights desperate for your love, Lydia, are you sleeping?”

In turn, you as an old woman will cry for your arrogant lovers, in your lonely alley, neglected while the north wind dances like a bacchante under the new moon. Your love and libido, of the kind that maddens the mothers of horses, rages around your impassioned heart, not without complaint:  the happy young men rejoice more in green ivy and dusky myrtle than dry leaves, which they dedicate to the east wind, the comrade of winter.

Horace’s Latin poem is gorgeous and looks like this.


Parcius iunctas quatiunt fenestras
iactibus crebris iuvenes proterui
nec tibi somnos adimunt amatque
     ianua limen,

quae prius multum facilis movebat               5
cardines. Audis minus et minus iam:
‘Me tuo longas perevnte noctes,
     Lydia, dormis?’

Invicem moechos anus arrogantis
flebis in solo levis angiportu               10
Thracio bacchante magis sub
     interlunia vento,

cum tibi flagrans amor et libido,
quae solet matres furiare equorum,
saeviet circa iecur ulcerosum               15
     non sine questu,

laeta quod pubes hedera virenti
gaudeat pulla magis atque myrto,
aridas frondes hiemis sodali
     dedicet Euro.               20

Recommended Reading: “Blue Skies,” “Thus Was Adonis Murdered,” “The Real Charlotte,” and “The Essential Peter S. Beagle”

I love Edward Gorey’s cover art (Dell edition)

“What should a woman read in May?” I asked myself, sitting cross-legged in bed and gazing at a pile of books.

This is a tough question, since I have so many books on the TBR, but I’ve been reading widely and wildly lately, so here are four quick recommendations.

First up, there’s T. C. Boyle’s comical, sad, satiric novel, Blue Skies,  which centers on a family dealing with climate change on both coasts.   Cat, a hard-drinking young woman whose fiancé constantly travels for his job,  lives a lonely life in a rickety beach house in Florida, where the sea is rising and the streets are usually flooded.  Her parents and brother live in idyllic California, which is not idyllic anymore:  it is on fire all the time.  Boyle has a flamboyant imagination but this novel is disturbingly realistic, and what has not  happened seems likely to happen soon.  This is a fast read – one for the dystopian novel collection.

And then there is Sarah Caudwell’s witty, smart mystery, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, first published in 1994 and recently reissued by Bantam.   Caudwell was famous for never revealing  the sex of the narrator, Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don and amateur sleuth who applies scholarly methods to solving crime.  

In this comic novel, the scatterbrained Julia Larwood,  a London barrister who shares an office with Hilary’s friends, has gone to Venice on an Art Lovers’ tour, hoping to meet an attractive man.  She writes very funny letters about her dream man to her friend Selena, which Hilary and the others chortle over at lunch.  But then there is a disaster:  Julia is accused of murdering the man.  Her friends know that clutzy, disorganized Julia could never have committed a murder, but proving it is problematic. 

Have you heard of the 19th-century writers,  E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross?  These two Anglo-Irish women co-wrote novels under the above  pseudonym. I recently read The Real Charlotte, a disturbing novel about the dangers of jealousy.  Charlotte Mullen,  a clever, unkind, middle-aged, well-to-do spinster,  is extremely  jealous of her much younger second cousin, Francie Fitzgerald, who has come to live with her. The lively Francie attracts every man in sight, including Mr. Lambert, an estate manager on whom Charlotte has a crush.  What horrors Charlotte manages to accomplish are almost beyond imagination.  

I am thoroughly enjoying The Essential Peter S. Beagle, a  two-volume collection of the award-winning author’s short stories.  As a child I loved his novel, The Last Unicorn, and am delighted to find the same feats of imagination in his short stories.  In “Lila and the Werewolf,” a young man, Farrell, is distraught to learn that his new girlfriend, Lila, is a werewolf. Farrell’s gift is for acceptance, but the problems of lycanthropy multiply speedily.   In a sweet, comical story, “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros,” a rhinoceros follows the professor home from the zoo.  The animal insists he is a unicorn, which the professor tells him is impossible.  The two live together for  years and argue constantly about philosophy. Is the rhinoceros/unicorn real?  Yes, I believe !   More on the stories when I get to the second volume.

And what are you reading?  Anything I should add to the TBR?

John Mellencamp, Midwestern Rock Star

I have a soft spot for John Mellencamp. 

John Mellencamp

“Midwestern rock star” may be an oxymoron, but John Mellencamp, born and raised in Indiana, is ACTUALLY a midwestern rock star. According to Google,  he still owns a house near Bloomington, Indiana, a gorgeous university town that is often dubbed “the Athens of the Midwest.” 

 When I was a student in Indiana and was told that Mellencamp lived nearby, I was indifferent. “Oh, really?” I was oblivious of celebrities, and, to be honest, I may not have known who he was. To this day, I fail my husband’s rock music quizzes. 

YouTube videos have changed that, to an extent, of course, and now I admire many of Mellencamp’s songs, including his latest, “Wasted Days,” which he performed with Bruce Springsteen, and classics like “Minutes to Memories” and “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Mellencamp is an intense singer/songwriter, with a passionate love of the midwest; he often treats themes of American injustice that are specific to the midwest.  In “Rain on the Scarecrow” he sings about bank foreclosures on small farms and their disappearance from the midwestern landscape; his 1985 hit, “Small Town,” is a sweet, sentimental anthem to those who live their whole lives in small towns (in the video, he films scenes in Seymour, his hometown); and in “Minutes to Memories,” an old man sits next to a young man on a Greyhound bus and tells his story:  “I’m old kind of worn out inside/ I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary/ and my father before me.” 

Watching the YouTube videos gives us a different perspective on his work.  Mellencamp’s performances differ in energy, perhaps according to mood, perhaps to intensive touring, perhaps to venue – who knows?  Sometimes he is manically, adorably energetic, giving himself to the crowd, other times he holds back a bit, though he is always very present, and during an MTV Unplugged concert he hid behind dark glasses. 

But at the Farm Aid benefit concerts, he gives himself wholly; he is invested in the cause, as a co-founder of Farm Aid in the ’80s. 

I must say that I approve of his low-key fashion sense at a Farm Aid concert in 1992. Any fan, male or female, could emulate his look: jeans, sneakers, and a white t-shirt under a black shirt.  He took off the black shirt  (either as a sexy strip-tease, or because he was sweating, who knows?) and danced in his t-shirt and jeans. 

Mellencamp was very cute when he was young, with thick, glossy hair and a slim, muscular body, not the toothpick-thin look of what I consider the “average” rocker (whoever that might be).  He smoked during interviews, which gave him a daredevil look. Not that I’m endorsing smoking.

Of course Mellencamp, 71, is older now and looks a bit haggard, as though he has lived a hard life, but haven’t we all?  Personally, I think haggard is a pretty good look: if you have it, flaunt it! As he says in his poignant song, “Wasted Days”:

How many summers still remain?
How many days are lost in vain?
Who’s counting out these last remaining years?
How many minutes do we have here?

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