Nostalgia for the Common Cold

For years we were beleagured by the common cold.  We caught them often when we were students, and later in our teaching days.  There is no question:  students are grubby.  A friend in high school  once cracked me up by saying, “If you’re doing it right, you don’t have to wash your hands.” In those days we rinsed our hands cursorily, but the powdered soap in restrooms didn’t come into play much until college (“It abrades our hands!”).  And washing hands didn’t become a serious thing  until the signs saying EMPLOYEES MUST WASH THEIR HANDS cropped up in every public restroom.

At a converted depot some years ago,  we read our first sign about singing “Happy Birthday” twice while you wash your hands.  We washed our hands thoroughly, though not for two rounds.   And then a few years ago, I  began to take fewer long bike rides, mainly because of sanitation issues in the few public restrooms on the trails.  Am I a sissy or simply a seer?

Can you be nostalgic for the common cold?  The common cold is grim , but it is preferable to Covid-19–and there’s no comparison, I know.  And yet there’s no cure for the common cold, just as there’s none for the coronavirus. In Carolyn See’s literary apocalyptic novel, Golden Days (which I wrote about here), the heroine’s best friend  impatiently taps her fingers on the nose of a man with a cold, and the snot flies out. He is cured.   I once tried tapping my sinuses once, but it didn’t work.  Where are the magic healers

Who gets a cold in literature?  I wonder.

In the  modern era, we turn to anicent measures:  we combine Seneca’s stoicism (“Avoid the crowd”) with old-fashioned medical advice (“Wash your hands”).

Let’s all stay well and practice social distancing!

Pestilence Pots, Literary P.I.s, & Sara Paretsky’s “Dead Land”

“Carriers are all we can be! La di da di de-e-e!”

Oh my God, not another family of pestilence pots!

And, yes, they’re barreling right toward you, without a thought of social distancing.

They put everybody at risk, by wrongly thinking they are immune, and not worrying that their children may be carriers (or become infected themselves).  

Perhaps a restriction on “family hours” would help.  Meanwhile, we can’t give them the peace sign, because they’re ignoring the health of the citizens of Planet Earth.

WHAT TO READ.  Are you a fan of P.I. fiction?   During the plague, I recommend losing yourself in a good detective novel.  The award-winning Sara Paretsky has a brilliant new novel, Dead Land, the nineteenth in the V. I. Warshawski series.

 V.I. Warshawski is a Chicago lawyer-turned-P.I., with a social conscience as well as detective skills.  She embarks on chilling adventures as she investigates violent crimes that are often linked to corporate corruption.  V.I. is far from ladylike:  she goes running with her two big dogs, which she shares with her 90-year-old neighbor, is an amateur climber, and seems to know everything about street fighting and guns.  Paretsky’s descriptions of V.I’s  legwork, risky interventions, and investigations of the rich and powerful  will transport you completely into this well-plotted mystery.

In the opening chapter,  V.I. and her goddaughter, Bernie, a university soccer star,  encounter a homeless woman who is playing a haunting song on a toy piano.  Bernie recognizes this woman as Lydia Zamir, a classically-trained musician whose songs about social issues were very popular wth the young, until Lydia disappeared four years ago after her Latino husband was killed in a mass massacre at a music festival in Kansas. 

V.I. connects Lydia’s  plight to two murders and the redevelopment of a park on the South side of Chicago. V.I. also takes a dangerous trip to Kansas, Lydia’s birthplace, after Lydia disappears a second time.   Plain,  brisk writing, and an unputdownable plot.

If you have other P.I. novels to recommend, I want to know!

Eclectic Lockdown Notes: A Gathering of Dogs &  Sigrid Undset’s “The Cross”

They can’t wait to get back to the dog park!

Coronavirus is worse than the plague.  I don’t mean literally;  I mean from our perspective. This is the plague we know.  This is the plague we cannot quite understand.  This is the plague that has fragmented our world.  And much of what we know about the plague is from novels like Camus’s The Plague and the Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s  The Cross, the third novel in her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  We never thought such an untreatable virus would happen here.

There are more cases of Covid-19 every day.  And so we practice social distancing, and wash our hands till they’re chapped. And yet who would think coronavirus threatens on a lovely spring day?  The sun is shining, the weather is mild, and the dogs are having the time of their life, because they’re going on walks constantly. The dog parks are closed, because dog parks mean A GATHERING OF DOGS.  (And humans, too, that’s the problem.). But it is a pleasure to see the dogs on their leisurely walks.  

I am not reading about the plague,  though I am thinking about getting a dog.  (Pet adoptions are up.) Still, I highly recommend  Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Unset’s masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  Set in the Middle Ages,  this Norwegian bildungsroman  takes us from Kristin’s childhood in the 14th century to her death in the plague era.  Undset’s lyrical style subtly mimics certain cadences of  medieval lit,  especially in Charles Archer’s 1920s translation.  The 1990s translation by Tina Nunnallly is in more modern English.  I have read and enjoyed both.

The first two books, The Wreath and The Wife (in Archer’s translation they are called The Bridal Wreath and The Wife of Husaby), tell the story of Kristin’s  forbidden love affair with Erlend, an elegant but careless man of noble family, and their difficult marriage, because Erlend has a bad reputation after living for 10 years with a married woman, has neglected his estate, and been generally indiscreet, especially in politics.  And Kristin, who is constantly pregnant and ill, must restore and run the estate.  She suffers much in her marriage, but her religion saves her.

We don’t get to the plague until the third book, The Cross, when Kristin, who has become increasingly religious since her marriage, goes on a  pilgrimage.  She is in a convent when the plague strikes, and she and the nuns are exposed as they care for the sick.  

Here is a particularly dark passage. Don’t read this if you’re not up to it! 

Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time.  No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone’s memory…  It was as if no living soul dared to hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish. 

My recommendation is that you read the first books of Kristin Lavransdatter and save The Cross for later–might as well wait till after the virus!

Lockdown 2020: “Decameron” to “War and Peace” & Reading Aloud

Vonnegut is great for reading aloud.

Everyone listens to audiobooks these days.  In fact, it’s hard to find a time when we’re not plugged into something. A few years ago a blogger wrote about listening to audiobooks with her boyfriend.  That’s rather sweet, but it’s even nicer to read books aloud with your boyfriend.

It used to be a cheap evening in for us, and now it still is:  plus, now we have t to stay home.  You don’t have to devote a lot of time to the project.  Reading a chapter or two every day is a pleasure.  Any genre you like, though we tend to stick to short books.  I recommend Kurt Vonnegut.


100 Days of Decameron

Anna Barker, a professor at the Univeristy of Iowa, will lead a discussion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron on Twitter starting on April 1.  She will be using the Project Gutenberg edition translated by J. M. Rigg.

She writes,

As the Great Plague, known as Black Death, was devastating Europe in the middle of the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio was writing a book of unparalleled wit and imagination to help rally the sagging spirit of humanity. Written between 1348 and 1352, The Decameron takes place in a Tuscan villa where seven young women, Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, and Emilia, and three young men, Filostrato, Dioneo, and Panfilo, are self-quarantined while the plague is ravaging Florence. Being young and of active disposition, they stave off boredom by establishing a routine – every day they take walks, sing and tell stories.

Then there’s The Decameron Project.

According to the Tor website:  “Over on Patreon, award-winning author (and contributor) Jo Walton, poet and author Maya Chhabra, and librarian, singer, and SF/F fan Lauren Schiller recently launched the Decameron Project, which aims to provide readers with a new donation-supported short story or novel excerpt every day as long as the world is under threat by the coronavirus.”

Then there’s Tolstoy Together. Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community.#TolstoyTogether.

Let me know about other “lockdown” projects!.

Yellowstone Park Is Closed, Yet We Fantasize about It

Yellowstone Park

We’re all doing it. We’re staying home.

We dress up for Zoom and Google Hangout.  Well, someone does.

We aren’t the blithe folk who spent spring break at Yellowstone Park.  (Every infected person infects two and a half people, so that wasn’t a smart vacation.)

But we would love to go there.  

The last time we went camping (though not at Yellowstone), the horse flies were terrible, and the rocky beach hurt our feet.  And  have you ever splayed yourself across the floor of a tent to keep it from blowing away in a storm? 

Camping isn’t a lot of fun, but it does get you out of the house.

Don’t people need a place to go?

No. Not yet.

Here’s my most productive thought : in the future, city planners will have to widen the sidewalks.

Slowing Down, Staying Home, & Taking Responsibility

Slowing down isn’t the worst thing in the world, but you need to block the reality of COVID-19 to calm down.  And you should keep a diary, however brief the entries.  Before you know it we’ll be reading best-selling Cornoavirus memoirs and diaries!   Might as well write your own. 

What I’ve noticed is that you can really hear the birds.  Various brown species (sparrows, I suppose) chirp and twitter and fly about.  Cats all over the country sit in windows enthralled. (Birds are the equivalent of alluring witches to them.)  Elsewhere, eagles are nesting, and the Sandhill Cranes make their annual migratory stop over the Great Plains. Although I know about the sandhill cranes only from Richard Powers’s novel, The Echo Maker, I’ve always meant to make the trip to Nebraska.

This is the year we have time to travel–but can’t.  There’s nowhere to go, unless you believe you’re immortal.  Drive past the malls and you will see no cars in the parking lots.  McDonald’s drive-thru is open–look at the lines.  

People are getting cranky and curmudgeonly. Women who dared to breed in this dangerous century are boldly writing essays about their exasperation at their offspring, and lashing out at people who expect them to become homeschooling moms.  I don’t know why they couldn’t homeschool:  anyone can do it. Assign an hour of reading a classic ever day, or, even easier, an hour of whatever they want to read. Give them math, if that’s your thing.  Set some ground rules. Play to your strengths.   Take responsibility, damn it!

While women fume about their families, men are writing comic pieces about how they’re driving their wives crazy at home. Men charmingly aver that they’re messy, needy, and demanding.   Yes, it’s funny, and probably true, but isn’t it time they took some responsibility?   These essays are not that cute.  Deal with it or fix it! If you’re messy, embrace it!

You can now “binge” on anything at home:  Netflix, books, food, gourmet coffee.  Once we were “cocooners,” now we are “bingers.” What a culture!  Bizarrely, I am watching less TV.  What is there to watch?  Nothing.  They’re live-streaming Emma–uh huh, if you want to pay $19. 

But we’re all a little distracted now.  Time to join the Slow Living movement!

Reading Marge Piercy’s “Vida” and Notes on Bookstore Closings

Yes, we must all turn to Jane Austen and novels of manners during troubled times.  But must we? 

It doesn’t suit me right now.  And so I recently reread Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced, vibrant, intense novel about a woman in her thirties who has lived underground for almost ten years after participating in a violent antiwar action.  

Published in 1979, this is one of the best novels I have read about the politics of the ’60s and ’70s. (I also recommend Piercy’s novel Small Changes.) There are political issues at the center of many of Piercy’s books, and the plots are so well-constructed that even the apolitical get hooked.  In case you’re worried about “cultural appropriation,” Piercy has credentials. The 1979 book jacket says: “Ms. Piercy has been a political activist for years–Civil Rights, antiwar groups, SDS and the women’s movement.”

In a way, Piercy is an American Doris Lessing; her heroine Vida Asch is an American Jewish Martha Quest.  This intricate novel goes back and forth between the “present” (the late ’70s) and the ’60s and early ’70s when Vida was an  antiwar activist in SAW (Students Against the War). 

Piercy gives you a look behind-the-scenes at a radical group hectically planning antiwar actions and writing propaganda.   Vida works  by day  as a secretary and by night as a strategist in the SAW office in New York.  Piercy minutely describes a long night at SAW.  Vida, of course, as a woman in the Movement, does everything from opening mail to plotting demonstration tactics and writing pamphlets.  

Tuesday night she bought Chinese takeout on the way to the SAW office from work.  Though the meeting was not till seven-thirty, she had a lot to get done.  Heaped on her desk were requests for antiwar literature, requests for speakers, letters from chapters with problems who wanted a regional representative to visit, donations, clippings, a a threat from Minute Man marked with cross hairs of a rifle sight, a love note from Pelican, and an obscene hate note addressed to Vida Ass and a notice to vacate their loft from the landlord….  The hate mail she shredded by hand and discarded….  She never spoke of how sick it made her feel; not even to Leigh; not even to Lohania, with whom she shared most of her wishes and fears.

The novel opens in the present, with Vida, who is based in L.A.,  on a cross-country trip to a board meeting of a radical group known as the Network.  Although it is dangerous to stop along the way in New York, she is still in love with her husband Leigh, host of a radical news show in New York, and she also longs to see her sister, Natalie, a women’s movement activist.   Arranging the meetings involves elaborate phone calls placed from phone booths, warily spending the night at the apartments of sympathetic liberals who don’t understand the necessity for secrecy, out-of-the way trips on the subway so as not be followed, and clandestine meetings. 

But it is worth it to Vida, who would give almost anything to have her regular life back. Still, she is devastated when she learns that Leigh plans to marry again. 

Piercy’s descriptions of the open relationships of the ’60s and ’70s are accurate, occasionally sensual, but often painful.   Women in the Movement share their men, have sex with their housemates, and sometimes are coerced to have sex with men in the Movement they dislike.  Vida is gorgeous and smart and confident, so she can handle the strain, but she is almost raped at gunpoint by a crazed lover.  Yet she despises the Women’s Movement as bourgeois. Piercy reminds us that the ’60s and ’70s were hardly the Woodstock people are nostalgic for.

Piercy’s heroines tend to be earthy, warm, and sensual, and Vida is no exception.  She cares about her friends, warts and all.  This is one of Piercy’s best, and she is always a vivid writer.  


The truth is there is more to lockdown than wiping down carts at the grocery store.  There’s washing hands!  Most stores have beeen closed for a couple of weeks.  

At least Barnes and Noble was open.

Two weeks into the lockdown, I would love to go to a bookstore.  I almost agree with James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, who, according to Publishers Weekly, has said that books and bookstores should be considered essential businesses right now. Daunt, who, in addition to being CEO of B&N, is  the founder of Daunt Books in the UK and the CEO of Waterstones in the UK (a bookstore I love!), is thinking in terms of business, but as a consumer/book lover, I believe that books are good for the soul and spirit. And examining the books themselves, feeling the heft and seeing the design, is an important part of book-buying.

Mind you, we have plenty of books.   But when I learned that  all the bookstores will be closed  by 10 tonight for an indefinite period, I wished I could rush out and buy one more book. 

The end of an era?