Lawrence Durrell’s Comic Sketches: “Antrobus Complete”

Lawrence Durrell, best-known for The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy consisting of the novels Justine, Balthazar, Mount olive, and Clea, is an entrancing, lyrical stylist.  He is one of my favorite writers; he is also, in my opinion, one of the best writers of the 20th century.  Members of the anti-Durrell contingent claim  they were “going through a phase” when they read half of Justine and cast it aside. But it is unfair to judge a writer on the basis of half a novel.  Durrell was versatile: a novelist, poet, humor writer, and travel writer.

I am a fan of  Antrobus Complete, a collection of his comic short stories (really sketches, I think). It is  irresistibly funny, a bit like Saki crossed with Betty MacDonald.  Antrobus, a fussy retired diplomat, often has lunch with the narrator, presumably Durrell: they had served together in foreign capitals before Durrell quit to become a writer.  The narrator is fond of  Antrobus, who glumly tells stories about diplomatic faux pas and hair-raising misadventures that could have precipitated political crises. 

Title page, with illustration of Antrobus by Marc

I chortled and snickered over these stories. Durrell’s style here is  unlike the lyrical writing of The Alexandria Quartet.  It is spare and witty, gently satiric and charming.  I could have read these stories all day, if only there were more of them.

There is a cast of recurring characters, among them Polk-Mowbray, the chief of several embassies (later the Ambassador of a country called Vulgaria).  In one story, he adopts a devil cat who speaks English, sends malicious telegrams, and smokes cigars.  (I was reminded of The Master and Margarita),  Everyone at the office loves Smoke the cat, but he or she – they don’t quite know – causes trouble and scandals.  Polk-Mowbray is devastated when he must part with Smoke, who is sent to cat rehab and thence to a luxurious cat home.

 Antrobus does not altogether approve of Polk-Mowbray.  In Athens in 1937, Polk-Mowbray still “wrote good English,” according to Antrobus. (This was akin to Middle English, the narrator notes.)  But  Polk-Mowbray’s use of  language deteriorated after a brief stint in America, where he fell in love with  Carrie Potts, a  majorette in a Stars and Stripes parade. Upon his return to Athens, he adopted  American spellings, American slang, and loud American fashion.

Antrobus grieves, “I noticed that  he dropped the Latin tag in his drafts. Then he began to leave the ‘u’ out of words like ‘colour’ and ‘valour.’  … I found a novel by Damon Runyan in his desk-drawer one day.  I admit that he had the good taste to blush when he saw I’d found it… “ One day he came upon Polk-Mowbray dressed in “check plus-fours with a green bush cap with a peak.”  Worse, he drank a Coca-Cola with a straw. 

Antrobus’s other lugubrious musings are equally comic.  In “Frying the Flag,” he glumly reminisces about the Grope sisters, Bessie and Enid, two old women who were editors of the Central Balkan Herald.   The newspaper was riddled with typos and errors:  THE BALKAN HERALD KEEPS THE BRITISH FLAG FRYING, MINISTER FINED FOR KISSING IN PUBIC, QUEEN OF HOLLAND GIVES BIG PANTY FOR EX-SERVICEMEN.  At one point Antrobus, who is a bit of a misogynist,  grudgingly admits that the typos are not the fault of the sisters, but of the Balkan typesetters, who could not read English. Still, he fumes and scapegoats the sisters. Polk-Mowbrary finally gets rid of them by a clever yet humane scheme, which involves match-making.

In “Noblesse Oblige,” the new Third Secretary, Anthony De Mandeville, arrives with his chauffeur, Dennis Purfitt-Purfitt, in  a flamboyant Rolls Royce with the De Mandeville arms stenciled on it.  The two are a gay couple, and Polk-Mowbray, now an ambassador, is startled to be called “darling boy.” Antrobus is delegated to rebuke De Mandeville, and does so with fervor.  

As you can imagine, De Mandeville proves to be an imaginative social planner (his main task as the Third Secretary).   For the Italian Ambassador’s daughter’s birthday party, De Mandeville dresses the waiters in Roman togas and at midnight releases a flock of doves.  “They flew disspiritedly round and round the room involuntarily bestowing the Order of the Drain Second Class on us all.”  The Roman waiters must clean up with sponges and cloths and “remove the rather unorthodox decorations we all appeared to be wearing.”

Even the anti-Durrell contingent will enjoy this delightful book, which is enhanced by drawings by Marc (Mark Boxer).

A Riveting Victorian Novel:  Dinah Maria Mulock’s “John Halifax, Gentleman”

If I were not a flexible reader, I would not have picked up a copy of John Halifax, Gentleman. The internet does not tell the whole story, but my impression is that the majority of readers are meticulous planners.  They have a TBR shelf or spreadsheet; participate in numerous online book groups; and read for annual events like Women in Translation.

Whimsy and spontaneity are the deciding factors for me.  I have a TBR, to which I add and subtract from regularly. This month I had the urge to read Dinah Maria Mulock’s wildly entertaining, if sentimental, John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), published as a Harper Perennial Legacy Edition paperback.(It was not on my TBR.) This little-known novel was so popular with unidentified English scholars when I was a student that there were five copies at the university library. It never appeared on any syllabus:  I concluded that there was a secret graduate seminar on John Halifax, Gentleman..

The daughter of a minister in Staffordshire, England, Mulock was a well-known Victorian novelist who also published under her married name,  Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. Though not quite in the class of Elizabeth Gaskell and Margaret Oliphant, Mulock’s unobtrusive style, quiet dialogue, and gentle descriptions of the English countryside make this minor writer worth reading.  John Halifax, Gentleman ticks many Victorian boxes:  it is a penniless orphan novel (think Dickens), an Industrial Revolution novel (think Elizabeth Gaskelll), and a moralistic novel (think Charlotte M. Yonge and Mrs. Humphry Ward).  It’s a pity that her other adult books are not in print, because I very much enjoyed this.

In John Halifax, Gentleman, Mulock describes the lifelong friendship between the narrator, Phineas Fletcher, the invalid son of a tanner, and John Halifax, the son of a gentleman, now a homeless beggar.  Phineas’s father, impressed with John’s manners and intelligence, gives him a job at the tannery.  John hates it but grimly sticks it out:  he rises in the world, and as  an adult becomes a partner in Abel Fletcher’s tannery and mill.  He also marries “up”:  his  smart, capable wife, Ursula, is utterly devoted, but was disinherited by her alcoholic cousin, the  executor of her father’s will, who refuses to pay her the money after she marries John. But John insists that they don’t need the money, and he has vowed never to “go to law.” (Shades of Bleak House!) John’s home is idyllic,  but there are many social problems in the 19th century. It is the age of the Industrial Revolution: when unemployed, starving mill workers riot, John saves Abel’s life and feeds the workers.

Alas, there is one problem:   Mulock is an excellent writer but does not have the faintest idea how to plot.    The suspense repeatedly rises – and then falls flat.  John is, apparently, an untouchable god: time and again he meets with adversity, and we are breathless with foreboding. But John is noble, moral, and upright, even with brigands on the road. And this constant flatlining is more nerve-racking than the ordinary ups and downs we expect.

But I was utterly absorbed by this fast-paced book,and hope that Harper Legacy publishes more of her novels.

The Early Bird Special:  “That We Should Rise with the Lark”

While I was dusting my books, I came across a tiny Oxford hardcover of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia.  It was behind the Doris Lessing books, where it has been lost in limbo for years.   It is a a mini-edition –  doll-size  – too big for Barbie (of the Barbie movie fame)  but perfect for the iconic Chatty Cathy, a talking doll that was de rigueur one Christmas. 

Bur I digress. I am not having an existential crisis – not exactly – but I am not ” happy as a lark,” either. When I began to reread Lamb, I chortled, relaxed, and admired.  These essays are as charming and thoughtful  as I remembered. I am presently reading the short-short “Popular Fallacies” essays  ( “That Home Is Home, though it is never so Homely,” “That a Bully is always a Coward,”  “That Handsome Is That Handsome Does,” etc.).   They are utterly delightful.

 My favorite:  “That We Should Rise with the Lark.” 

Like Lamb, I do not rise with the lark.

 Lamb writes,

At what  precise minute that little airy musician doffs his night gear, and prepares to tune up his unseasonable matins, we are not naturalists enough to determine.  But for a mere human gentleman – that has no orchestra business to call him from his warm bed to such preposterous exercises – we take ten, or half after ten (eleven, of course during this Christmas solstice) to be the earliest hour, at which he can begin to think of abandoning his pillow.

I agree whole-heartedly with Lamb. For a mere human lady, we also prefer to sleep in.   One morning last summer I rose at 6, took my cup of tea outdoors, and squished through the grass, determined to commune with nature. “Is that dew?” I had forgotten about dew. But the sunrise gave me a headache, and I couldn’t find my sunglasses. And where was the lark? It seemed that the lark had had a late night and not yet left the nest.

Lamb writes, “We are no longer ambitious of being the sun’s courtiers, to attend at his morning levees.”

Lamb is thoughtful, whimsical, satirical, and sometimes poignant.

The mini-Oxford edition has no introduction, but the copyright page reveals that Charles Lamb was

Born:  London     10 February 1775

Died:  Edmonton  27 December 1834

And the essays were published between 1820 and 1833.

Reflections on Wheels:  Why I Ride a Bicycle & Books about Bicycling

One summer I carried War and Peace in my bike pannier.

Some of you know that I am a bicyclist.  Look at the photo of the bike at the top of the right-hand column.  The caption says CARBON TREADPRINT.  Clever, isn’t it? I have posted this on four of my blogs, going back to 2011 (I think).  Inspired by Earth Day, The Environmental Handbook, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Rachel Carson, and Joni Mitchell, I consciously decided never to learn to drive. It is a simple lifestyle: it is a matter of living in a town or city near mass transit routes. 

And yet people cannot accept that this is a valid choice. 

 “I want to see you behind the wheel of that car,” a radical teacher said jovially in the dark days of my teens. 

I found it exasperating that everyone thought driving was the nadir of achievement. 

And, alas, the fossil-fuel burning continues. Few Americans are willing to change their life-style by driving less, or by taking public transit. In fact, it is impossible to take public transit if you live in the exurbs.

Today I clicked on an article in the Guardian with the headline: Humanity has ‘opened gates to hell’ by letting climate crisis worsen, UN secretary warns. 

At a UN climate conference in New York (a “climate ambition summit”), the UN secretary Antonio Guterres asserted that “humanity has opened the gates of hell” by not dealing with climate change, the wildfires, storms, droughts, floods, and other weather events. The solution is, of course, to stop burning fossil fuels. He added, “The future of humanity is in our hands. We must turn up the tempo, turn plans into action and turn the tide.”

I am in complete agreement with him, but have concluded that there is little point in conferences.   Nothing gets done. Nothing changes.  And that, of course, is his point. He said that the leaders of the most polluted countries – the greatest users of fossil fuels – were not present. (N.B. I heard from a friend that Biden was not invited. Is that correct? Surely there are some American representatives there!)

But wasn’t there JUST a big environmental conference in England a few months ago?  Nothing happened, as far as I know, except that environmentalists were indignant because the sponsor was invested in fossil fuels (or something equally bad) . That’s what I picked up from the press, along with a list of celebrities who attended or protested or both. (I hope something was accomplished at this world-renowned conference!)

I have vowed not to read any more of these articles.

I do take joy in bicycling, and have commuted by bike in the past. I recommend recreational biking: ride around your neighborhood or on one of the innumerable beautiful trails in the U.S. It is possible now to bicycle three seasons of the year. That is, if there’s not a wildfire or flood or…

Let’s enjoy the beautiful fall days while we have them.

Five Influential Books about Bicycling

Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt:  Iteland to India on a Bicycle.  This brilliant, funny travel book inspired me  to accompany my husband on a tri-state bicycle trip.  Not quite to India, though.

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. David Byrne, singer, musician, songwriter,  and former member of the Talking Heads, has used his bicycle for transportation in New York City since the 1980s.  He takes a folding bicycle on tour and has explored cities all over the world on his bike.  A fascinating little book.

H. G. Wells’s The Wheels of Chance, a charming comic novel about a summer cycling holiday in 1895.

 Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel.  In this comic sequel to Three Men on a Boat, the three heroes take a cycling holiday in the Black Forest.

Tom Cuthbertson’s Anybody’s Bike Book: A Manual of Bicycle RepairsThis charming book was our bike bible when we were repair newbies. (I never “graduated” from newbie, though,) This book is witty, with comical illustrations, and, as I recall, advises you to take wine breaks if you get frustrated. I once changed a flat tire when my husband was away.  I followed the directions and eventually succeeded, after many whining phone calls to my husband. . The down side:  it took me 12 hours.

Are There Aliens in Manhattan?  Evelyn E. Smith’s “The Copy Shop”

I thought I was reading a collection of humor pieces. I picked up Evelyn E. Smith’s The Copy Shop on a whim.  Published in 1985, it lacked a book jacket. The first pages were amusing.

It began with a rant.  The narrator (who I assumed was the author)  contends that the Upper West Side of Manhattan would be the perfect place for aliens to live, provided they could find an apartment, since they would blend in with the “joggers, muggers, bicyclists, beggars, shriekers in tongues, peddlers, pushers, flashers, winos, whiners, madmen, and the rest of that universe…” 

And then she laments the vanishing of the species of “the true New Yorker, born and bred within the 320 square miles that make up the city…, a wary, low-profiled person, apt to get a bit freakish in old age, but essentially reserved, well-spoken, intelligent; above all, courteous, which the outlanders are not.”

In the 21st century, the outlanders are everywhere. We all miss courtesy and intelligence. In Manhattan in the 1980s in The Copy Shop, the narrator snobbishly categorizes and castigates the outlanders : “the loud, rude barbarians, whom the rest of the world mistakenly regard as typical New Yorkers, are  aliens, arrivistes, cast out from other states, countries, why not worlds?”

It wasn’t till page 9 that I cottoned on that this was a  novel, possibly science fiction or a thriller. The narrator, it turns out, is Ted Bogard, a handsome young man who is finicky about protocol and etiquette.  He deplores the noise of an ongoing construction site, the ubiquity of copy shops (why are they everywhere and what do they copy?), and the violent news blasting constantly from the TV night and day.  He lives in a huge rent-controlled apartment, but has installed his girlfriend, Candace, in his studio in the Village, where his mother and Aunt Magda used to run their fortunetelling business.

Ted is not a fortuneteller. The less said about his business the better. But soon he learns that there are aliens in Manhattan.  His alien father contacts him via the computer, because he is in the neighborhood. He gives Ted bad news. And what can Ted do about it?

Yet Ted might not be quite the most reliable narrator in the world. Is it possible that he…. No, I cannot give the details.

A comical, entertaining, uneven, unsettling book. Is it a rant, is it a satire, is it SF, is it a thriller?

According to Wkipedia, Smith (1922-2000) was a prolific writer of science fiction and mysteries and a crossword compiler.

The Annotated Georgette Heyer (An Instagram Satire)

Do you wish that life was all roses, gypsy shawls, Starbucks lattes, classy spectacles carelessly tossed down on a table, and a trashy-looking paperback heavily annotated with color-coded sticky tabs? 

You, too, can live this life.  All you have to do is pretend that you have an Instagram account!

A pseudo-annotated copy of Devil’s Cub!

I have a history with Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub.  You may remember that I keep finding it at the Little Free Library.  I keep bringing it home because everyone recommends Heyer.  I keep taking it back because I don’t want to read it. The cover proclaims that it is the story of “a bewitching beauty and a dangerous masquerade.”

Lotsa stickies!

On Instagram and YouTube, some enthusiastic readers annotate nearly every page of their books with color-coded sticky tabs. The tabs are so colorful and decorative!

I wickedly decided to satirize this charming trend by “annotating” Devil’s Cub. At least, you might assume it was annotated by the number of sticky tabs applied to the pages.

I confess, I found no reason to read the book. This is not, after all, Regency Buck or Faro’s Daughter, both of which are listed on the “England’s ‘Mistress of Suspense’ Georgette Heyer” page at the back of the book. No, probably better not to read Devil’s Cub.  “As she gazed defiantly into those smouldering grey eyes, Mary Chalmer’s heart melted.  Against her will, against all her plans, the Marquis of Vidal had won her love forever.”

And finally, here is my satiric diary entry!

Has anybody read Devil’ Cub? I do recommend Heyer’s The Transformation of Philip Jettan and Venetia. But she is not my go-to comfort read, as she is for many.

John O’Hara and Me

“Is there anything I haven’t done?  Is there anyone I haven’t offended?” – Julian English in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra

In John O’Hara’s bracing first novel, Appointment in Samarra, the anti-hero Julian English’s self-destructive bender and depressed musings are typical not only of Julian, but of the brilliant, brash O’Hara. According to Fran Lebowitz, O’Hara was an underrated writer “because every single person he knew hated him.” Though Appointment in Samarra is considered his best novel, his second  novel,  BUtterfield 8, is almost equally brilliant, despite its exasperating, sexist ending. These two well-written, fast-paced Depression novels, published in 1934 and 1935 respectively, deserve a revival.

Appointment in Samarra  takes place during the Christmas season, which involves much partying and a lot of drinking. O’Hara is a shrewd sociologist as well as a novelist: he comments on his characters’ religious affiliations, social clubs, and family origins. He subtly probes the class strata during the Depression and Prohibition. The characters are residents of Gibbstown, Pennsylvania, which is based on Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where O’Hara grew up.

Class and sex drive the plot. The novel opens with a middle-class couple, Luther and Irma Fliegler, having  happy sex on Christmas morning. Afterwards they discuss their prospects of acceptance at the most prestigious club in town.  Everyone in Gibbstown is obsessed with class and clubs; or if not, and if they are of a lower class, they are knowledgable of the class demarcations. The well-paid gangster, Al Grecco, is a nice, sentimental guy who works for Ed Charney, because Al can get no other job during the Depression. His job description varies from day to day. On Christmas he is asked to guard Ed’s mistress,  a hard-drinking singer at a bar, from the attentions of men, while Ed stays home with his family.   But Al ’s main job is to drive to different towns to buy bootleg gin and whisky, and then sell it to private customers and speakeasy owners. There is an undercurrent of violence in Pottstown: Al can get violent if Ed insists. And some of the Gibbstown residents are smouldering.

 The protagonist, Julian, is sui generis in Gibbstown. He is a successful, Yale-educated, moody, cynical, sometimes charming, yet pugnacious owner of a Cadillac dealership, with a beautiful wife and a lovely house, and a group of friends he has known since childhood. And yet he manages over a period spanning 36 hours to alienate everyone he knows after he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, simply because he hates him.

This quickly becomes a scandal and Julian is the talk of the town. Caroline is exasperated: she points out that Harry Reilly will make a bad enemy.  For one thing, he has invested a lot of money in the Cadillac dealership.  For another, he is Catholic, and all the Catholics stick together.  And, indeed, Harry refuses to see Julian when he goes to apologize.

Yet privileged Julian gets into deeper and deeper trouble as he continues to drink.  The next day he gets into a fight at the club with his childhood friend, a one-armed war veteran, who needles him about throwing a drink at Reilly, and says he has always hated him, and despises him for being at Yale during the war.

Julian is an unsympathetic character, and yet his downward path, disturbing as it may be, gives him a kind of pathos.  We dither: If only he hadn’t been so drunkenly belligerent… If only he hadn’t come on to three different women in a short time span (though nothing happens)… And if only he had listened to his charming wife Caroline, who adores him but becomes increasingly annoyed as Julian becomes more self-destructive during his bender.  His whole life is threatened because of the falling of social dominos.  And yet he goes on drinking.

So why do I love this novel so much when Julian is such a wreck ? He is unlikable, but tragically depressed, as O’Hara must have been. I don’t want the things Julian had or the things O’Hara wanted. O’Hara was obsessed with Yale and lobbied to get an honorary degree.  They wouldn’t give it to him. They were too snobbish. He also wanted the Nobel Prize. Did O’Hara set his sights too high? Hubris? No, I don’t think so. Clearly he was a great American writer. A pity he is underread.

O’Hara has the record for publishing the most short stories of any writer in The New Yorker:  247. In 1955 he won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederic. Even then he didn’t feel he got the respect he deserved. A funny thing about writers: they need more and more praise. They can be obnoxious and narcissistic. And yet their books can be brilliant. Read on.

Picks & Pans: In Which I Learn There Are No Terrible Books on My Shelves

I’ve always enjoyed Picks & Pans, the short, saucy reviews in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and other smart magazines.

So why not have my own Picks & Pans section?  This is it, people!  I don’t have any pans today, because I’m not out to murder books.  And, face it, I have good taste. There are no bad books on my shelves.

Bask in the recommendations!

Golden Age Bibliomysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This anthology of short stories and novellas is a bookworm’s recreational drug.  There are stolen manuscripts, murders at the public library, and other crimes of bibliomania. In Anthony Boucher’s “QL 696.CN,” a librarian with ‘the soul of a cataloguer” is murdered while typing a seemingly innocuous list of books. In Lawrence G. Blochman’s “Death Walks in Marble Halls,” the librarian Phil Manning rushes to the scene  of the murder of H. H. Dorwin, a library trustee; he is determined to protect his innocent friend, Betty Vale, a ballet dancer and possible suspect who had an appointment to meet Dorwin at the library.  There is e a ven story by Lilian de Torres featuring Boswell and Samuel Johnson as detectives.

Something Happened Yesterday, by Beryl Bainbridge.  Many of us read Beryl Bainbridge’s novels, but did you know she was a columnist for the Evening Standard  in the late eighties and nineties?  Something Happened Yesterday, a charming collection of her columns, is a hodgepodge of witty, sometimes poignant, slices-of-life.  She writes about her exhilaration when she is persuaded to be the fortune-teller at the annual neighborhood carnival (her hunches are so spot-on that she oversteps boundaries);  she gently satirizes a university literary festival (an old woman wants help with a story that so far is three sentences long); and is horrified when her neighbor’s builder knocks down the party wall at the end of her garden (the council told her to pull herself together and she regrets “wasting several months agonizing over [the] wall.” ) This collection is perfect for reading on the bus or when you sneak out for a smoke at your mother-in-law’s Sunday brunch. I’m not a smoker, but Beryl was.  Cheers!

Julie Schumacher’s The English ExperienceIn this witty academic satire, James Fitger, chair of the English department at Payne University, is bullied by the Provost into escorting a group of students to England in January for the “Experience: Abroad” program.  The students are a varied bunch:  Wyatt Franklin packed only shorts and flip flops because he thought he’d signed up to go to the Cayman Islands; identical twins Andromeda and Cassiopeia Wagner-Hall are witty art students who hand in multi-media  projects in lieu of essays; Felicity Babinec has never been away from her cat Mrs. Gray ;  and on the first day the students finish their itinerary early and send him  texts saying they are tired of the British Museum (they’ve been there 55 minutes ) and would he pay for two or three cabs for them? But the group bonds with Fitger when he rebels against a tour guide.

Against Censorship:  Books Are Civilization

Passionate readers do not read expurgated editions of books.  We do not want to read Readers’ Digest condensed books or abridged classics. We do not want sanitized versions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series or Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  We are relieved that in 1960 the ban was lifted from D. H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  But how long will this freedom last? The barbarians are at the gate. Book-banning is legal in some red states and some publishers have capitulated to pressure from both the left and right to update, i.e. censor, the classics.

How did our society regress so quickly ?  It is a political issue. It is pandering to a tiny right-wing minority. It began in our blue state when it turned seeing-red in 2016. The state government has regressed so far that it recently legislated banning books in the schools. At this point I should draw a cartoon depicting the state legislators with their protegees, Moms for Liberty, gleefully romping and flicking lighters as they prepare a bonfire of books.  The caption would have to be:  “Vote for ignorance!”

The banning of issue-oriented Y.A. books in the schools does not particularly concern me.  That’s because the school libraries should invest in better-written, more challenging, mature books anyway.  What actually concerns me is the banning of classics.  Here’s what the red states are banning these days:  Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Art Spiegleman’s Maus, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Orwell’s 1984, and (déjà vu) Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. What’s the next target? It is likely to be public libraries.

What I want to know is:  when did censorship become a women’s issueMoms for Liberty, founded in 2021, has received much publicity, though it boasts only 120,000 members. Still, they can take some credit for the new censorship policies in the schools.  They have worked to wrest power from teachers and librarians. They aver that parents are entitled to dictate the public school curricula.  In addition to banning books, they demand that teachers limit discussions of race and LGBTQ+ issues.  This year the Republicans, particularly the presidential candidates, noisily support Moms for Liberty.

Here’s what I wonder:  what do Moms for Liberty read?  Have they read Joyce, Morrison, Faulkner,  Orwell, and other books on their banned list?  Wouldn’t you love to infiltrate their group for a day? My guess is that many prefer racy Netflix shows to reading, but they may enjoy the S/M former best-seller,  Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest Colleen Hoover, bodice-ripper romances, celebrity biographies, and People magazine.

Of course I shouldn’t generalize.  For all I know, they’re scholars.

But I doubt it.


The Accidental Time Traveler

I tried time travel for the first time after reading E. Nesbit’s fantastic novel, The Enchanted Castle. There was a castle in our neighborhood, which seemed a sign of magical possibility. It was called Ardenia, an old red brick apartment house, with the false front of a castle, and a wall shielding its modest form from the eyes of passers-by.  Ardenia’s gloomy, narrow yard extended all the way between our back-yard fence and that of the neighbors on the street behind us. We were mad about Ardenia.  We tried incantations. We followed a black cat around the garden. We left messages in a hollow tree. Soon we gave up, because it was boring waiting for magic to happen. Magic, we learned, mostly occurred in books.

As an adult, I have mastered the art of literary time travel. When I reread Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic linked by the theme of change in classical myth, I am transported by the elegant, alien Latin to the alien culture of Rome.  My Rome, part imaginary, part historical, is almost wholly created by Roman poets. The colors are even different:  purpureus can be purple, but it is also crimson.  And  Ovid’s Rome is peopled by enchanted beings, nymphs, dryads, malicious gods and goddesses, monsters, and beings changed into trees, flowers, birds, and monsters.

Literary time travel can take you anywhere.  On a recent rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I was delighted to get reacquainted with Catherine Morland.  Catherine, an avid, occasionally silly, fan of Gothic novels, is as intent on finding real-life Gothic tropes as I am on time travel.  Here’s an example of a bookish dialogue between Catherine and her friend Isabella. 

Isabella begins,

“Have you gone on with Udolfo?”

“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”

“Are you indeed?  How delightful!  Oh!  I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world!  Are you wild to know?”

“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be?  But do not tell me – I would not be told on any account.  I know it must be a skeleton….”

Where will I travel next? Perhaps to Baltimore. I am eager to reread Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, my favorite of her novels.  I love the concept of a travel book writer who doesn’t like to travel, and who is cozier and snugger in  his hometown of Baltimore  than he probably was in his mother’s womb.  I have been to lovely Baltimore:  it is one of the most underrated cities in the U.S.

And so let’s go to Baltimore, where Tyler’s characters await us!

%d bloggers like this: