What to Read While Hunkering Down at Home

IShirley MacLaine “hunkering down” (?) with T.S. Eliot

“I don’t mind the cold. It’s the light I miss.”

I say that every year. I have a partial solution: you feel happier if you use twice as much electricity, i.e., turning on every lamp in the house and using the brightest light bulbs you can find. (And that’s why we need wind energy: 36 percent of ours is powered by wind turbines.)

We had our first snow last week, and the nights are getting darker earlier. We have been “hunkering down” at home (as Dr. Fauci and other infectious disease experts suggest) and getting a lot of reading done (which is my interpretation of “hunkering down”).

If you’re tired of hunkering–and there has certainly been a lot of it this year–I know two remarkable books to make the time go faster. This is also a perfect way to catch up on my book entries, which have been fewer lately.

1 Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, by Michiko Kakutani. This entertaining book would make a great Christmas gift, or in this case, a hunkering-down gift for bibliophiles. You may remember Kakutani as a daily book critic at The New York Times, whose gracefully-written, incisive, tough reviews could make or break a book. She shows a softer side of herself in these enthusiastic short essays about the books she loves. You will madly write down all the books you want to read e or reread.

And so I cannot wait to read Saul Bellow (the only book I’ve read by him was the The Dean’s December, and I dismissed him on the basis of that), the historian Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America ( he wote “that images were supplanting ideals [and] the idea of ‘credibility’ was replacing the idea of truth”), Underworld by the great Don De Lillo, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, and so many more.

2 The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. This irresistible meta-Victorian novel is a classic, which I did not realize it when I first read it after seeing the movie with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Perhaps I did not recognize its perfection because I read so much in those days that great books blended into each other. One day it was Trollope, the next Elizabeth Bowen, the next Caesar’s Commentaries, and I sometimes blundered when I came upon excellent new books that would prove to be classics. It takes time and comparison to know.

Fowles’s imitation of a Victorian novel centers on Charles, a 32-year-old gentleman, amateur geologist, and Darwinist who is engaged to marry a merchant’s daughter, Ernestina, who is as witty as a character in a George Meredith novel. Unfortunately, Charles begins to doubt his decision when he falls for a mysterious red-haired woman, Sarah Woodruff, who walks along the beaches and cliffs of Lyme every day. . Reputed to have been engaged to–and sexually active with–a French officer who deserted her, Sarah is bolder than women of Charles’s class. And she actively pursues him.

But there is so much more than plot, character, and sex to this novel. Fowles interweaves details about Victorian life and history into the narrative, sometimes in fascinating footnotes, other times in interruptions by an omniscient narrator who comments on the action and sometimes offers alternate versions of an incident.

As a Victorian novel, it is simply stunning. As twentieth-century fiction, it is doubly brilliant. Even if you do not care for meta-fiction, this book will ensnare you and keep you reading. Loved it!

’90 North” by Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell

After finishing Randall Jarrell’s satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution, I decided to read some of his poetry. I enjoyed and admired the following much-anthologized poem, “90 North.”

“90 North”

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
                                        And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness 
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Pondering Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”

Jottings on Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”

I am loving Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, a comic novel set at Benton College, which is based loosely on Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive college where Jarrell briefly taught. In this rare video, I speak of my impressions of the book.

Here is a little background: Pictures from an Institution is partly a roman à clef, featuring such celebrities as Mary McCarthy, who, in Pictures, is portrayed as Gertrude, a creative writing teacher who turns all experiences into biting satiric novels. Indeed, McCarthy’s brilliant The Groves of Academe, a hilarious satire of Sarah Lawrence College, was published in 1952, two years before Jarrell’s. Was there some rivalry between the two writers?

Worth reading for all who love satires!

Why We Dread the Election

A few weeks ago my husband sat down for breakfast and told me the latest gloomy bullshit. “Trump might not leave if Biden wins.”

“Where did you hear THAT?”

It was in one or perhaps a dozen of our nation’s venerable newspapers.

Naturally, we were appalled, and we voted for Biden as soon we received our ballots in the mail. We would have voted for him as soon as the ballots came anyway. But I slowly realized the hysteria about Trump’s not leaving office is probably bullshit. He may have said it in a tweet–that’s what I heard–but who in her right mind is on Twitter these days? And on Twitter it’s one thing today, another the next. I could get behind a law that forbids tweeting, period. It is one of the most hysterical super-spreader media of all time.

The truth is, there is a lot of bullshit before a presidential election. Not just before an election–for years before an election. The polls said Howard Dean would be a shoo-in in 2004. No, he did poorly at caucuses and primaries. We all thought Hillary would win in 2016. I had reservations about the candidacy of the always-unpopular Hillary, but I am hardly a pundit. Guess what? Hillary didn’t win.

When the whole rat race for the 2020 nomination began (two years ago?), journalists had many favorites. They loved Sherrod Brown, an experienced, pro-Labor, progressive, and yet not radical senator. Since he has a degree in Russian Studies (which probably includes literature), I would have voted for him! And surely he would have gone to a humanities festival and participated in a reading of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. (Such marathon readings are popular, and support the humanities.)

Biden, too, has a liberal arts background. He has a B.A. from the University of Delaware (not too fancy, so I can relate), with a double major in history and political science, and a minor in English. Then he went to law school–which so many of them do. But forget that. Let’s concentrate on the liberal arts!

We do not know the future. Really, we do not. Get the vote out, then worry.

And skip the more hysterical editorials that will reduce you to tears and may or may not be based in reality.

The bottom line: Vote!

Read the editorials after the election!

Meanwhile, carpe diem!

We Will Wear You Out with Our New Positivity (and Emojis)

Gentrification of the fridge

The new me is unrecognizable. One note from the doctor, and I whirl the chi into balance. Exercise is now my favorite activity: It’s out of the shower and into the streets for a brisk walk. (Does getting up at noon take the virtue out of it?) When I tell you I ate oatmeal for breakfast, you will fall off your chair. “Amazing, Kat!” And the unbelievers will sneer, “Her? I don’t believe it.”

Believe it, people. I’m on a new health regimen. I do not eat pop tarts anymore. You are going to miss my negative self very, very soon. We all will when I eat kale for dinner tonight. Kale and couscous–I wonder if I CAN eat such a combo. And you will not like my tote bag with happy faces on it, either. It was ironic, but now I have to use it. And I may join Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club. Why not? The books may have positive messages. But first I will dash off a note to her publicist, “Who came up with that witless name?”

I will not write that note, of course, because it will disturb my chi, or is it qi? Besides, it is time to meditate. Which I do in corpse pose, because it is more relaxing than sitting cross-legged.

Then I exercised for another hour. You know why? I couldn’t face plain yogurt with fruit for lunch. I have no doubt it will make me a better person, because how could sugarless food not bring me joy? At least yogurt is dairy: that’s one up over kale.

Dave figured out if he added green food coloring to his milkshakes everyone just presumed he was drinking a kale smoothie.

And, here’s the best thing of all about my new positivity: I became a responsible citizen of the United States when I VOTED EARLY! We sat down and filled in the bubbles on the ballot. Wow, a lot more candidates for president than we thought. We went with the traditional Democrats, Biden-Harris. No , not the Green Party candidate… no writing in of Bernie–just a prayer to the gods to get the pandemic under control, and then everything else may follow.

And now I must read something irreverent by Mary McCarthy. Because, you know, I’m human, and though I do plan on being SOOOOOO healthy, I need to read literature. Later I plan to discover the best healthy junk food. It is not sugarless Swiss Miss! I already tried.


And positive emojis:


On Wellness, High-Tech Thermometers, & “War and Peace”

I went to the clinic to get a prescription renewed. In the lobby, I filled out a form attesting to the absence of cornonavirus symptoms. “Have you had contact with anyone with Covid in the last two weeks?” No. Then the tech tried to get a temperature reading on me. I did not respond to the thermometer gun aimed at my head. She tried three different thermometers. BLAP! BLAP! BLAP!


“Perhaps I do not exist,” I said brightly. A scowl in return. She did not know I was joking. You can’t get past the foyer unless you have a normal temperature. They waved me in with no temperature, though. I thought of Twilight and Interview with a Vampire.

Anyway, I got in. Fabulous! What fun. ALL the blood work is bad. Thank you, pandemic, for keeping me inside for most of seven months so I don’t get Covid but get generally run-down. All the numbers went up, even my blood pressure, which used to be low, and now is normal. That can’t be good! I faithfully promised to exercise…long Emily Bronte-style walk on the moors–and took an exhausting bike ride with my husband the same day to get all the numbers down, down, down. If I biked like that very day, I would be healthy…but asleep by 8 o’clock.


War and Peace is my favorite novel, even more brilliant than Villette, my other favorite. But the other day I came across a W&P character list and name pronunciation guide, and learned, by God, that I have mispronounced the names of my two favorite 19th-century Russian families for years.

Who wouldn’t love to live with the charming Rostovs? I especially like the company of Nicholas and Natasha. Rostov is pronounced Ros-TOV, not ROS-tov, which sounds better to me. And I adore Pierre Bezhukov, but it is Bezh-U-kov, not BEZH-u-kov.

The Maudes (my favorite translators of Tolstoy) would be disappointed in me. Louise and Aylmer Maude were meticulous translators, knew Tolstoy, and it is their character and pronunciation list. But I’ll always call these characters the ROS-tovs and the BEZH-u-kovs. We have our linguistic biases. I once knew a Spanish family who called their cat Gatsby “Gots-by.” The same thing.

And now…

Stay well!


“Can You Make Me a Cup of Tea?” & Lady Chatterley’s Lover

10th November 1960: Two women in London, with copies of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, after a jury decided that it was not obscene.

I have never been more exhausted. The pandemic has aged me ten years in seven months.

At least that’s how it seems.

I do not dwell on my looks. I am talking about vitality in everyday life. No wonder. The country is falling apart.

“Could you make me a cup of tea?” I wheedle my husband. I used to make my own tea. Now I collapse on the divan with a pile of books, practically a small library. Tonight my choices are an Arnold Bennett, Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel (one of my favorites), a novella by Anita Desai, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. My husband charmingly brings me a cup of what we call “purple tea.” The tea comes in a purple package.

Tea and reading help. I have been reading, of all things, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I never thought this was one of Lawrence’s better novels, but after The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo, it is a masterpiece.

This is not Lawrence’s best novel but it is his most famous, banned for obscenity from 1928 until 1960. People read it nowadays as a curiosity rather than as literature. Although there is little in Lady Chatterley that a modern reader, or particularly a cable TV watcher would find pornographic, there are several sex scenes, and some are more explicit than I’d remembered. Lawrence wrote three completely different versions of the book, and I wonder if I read an earlier version before. I am inclined to think I did. I remembered his referring to genitals in terms of ‘”John Thomas” and “Lady Jane,” but did not recall his use of more explicit language.

Lawrence begins this controversial novel:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future

The situation is tragic: Lawrence writes elegantly of the heroine Connie’s marriage to Clifford Chatterley, who returns from the war a paraplegic; their non-sexual marriage; and her desire for a child.

The plot is simple, but the prose is sharp and unflinching, and the characters are vibrantly alive. After the war, Connie and Clifford live at Wragford Hall. Clifford becomes a writer of what Connie’s father calls “dead books.” Connie is responsible for the care of Clifford, and becomes run-down. Her sister Hilda tells Clifford he must hire a nurse to relieve Connie.

Until the nurse is hired, we were not aware of all the physical tasks Connie has done for Clifford. Finally, she is free to do what she likes, and spends hours walking in the woods, appreciating nature. She and Mellors, the taciturn gamekeeper, embark on an affair, only it is more than that. Their intense relationship leads to an unusual sexual, intellectual, and spiritual rapport.

Like Rupert in Women in Love, Mellors lectures on the dead mechanical society, and the subjection of men to industrial culture. He also talks about sex: he tells Connie she is the only woman he knows capable of a “real” orgasm, rather than clitoral (though he does not use that word). She ignores this, focusing on their love, while Mellors darkly predicts that the human race will destroy itself after depleting the planet’s resources. (Is he right?) Connie keeps him balanced, thinking that much of what he says is unimportant to the future of their own relationship.

Lawrence loves his characters to discuss ideology and philosophy. Some of it is fascinating, some a bit tiring if you know his other books. But the first half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is brilliant. Perhaps all that rewriting tired him out.

The Problem with Initials

Vintage engraving of Woman reading newspaper, Late Victorian, 19th Century

“Your TLS subscription is about to expire,” the e-mail says.

Well, perhaps I will re-subscribe. I glanced at this week’s issue, and dutifully read two essays on classics, one on The Odyssey, the other on Pliny. Both articles seemed, well, facile.

Then the new N.B. columnist, M.C., was snotty about Louise Glück, the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

M.C. says pompously,

… it’s not an amaranthine mandarinate in Stockholm that matters in the long term; it’s the writing. And time itself, they say, will be the judge of that.

Yes, the Nobel Prize in Literature may sometimes attach itself to a writer who seems worth reading – regarding this year’s laureate, the American poet Louise Glück, you might have surmised as much by noting the modest accolades she has already garnered: the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Poet Laureateship and so on.

M.C. concludes that the Nobel Prize for Literature does not matter to posterity. It matters to me! I love Doris Lessing, Peter Handke, Yeats, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Heinrich Boll, Garcia Marquz…. So many great Nobel winners!

I did enjoy M.C.’s previous two (or three?) columns. We need our book columnists, and they are rare these days. But I have decided there are too many initials in the TLS: N.B., M.C., and J.C. (James Campbell), the former writer of the N.B. column. It might be better to rename the column, so we do not compare M.C. with J.C.

I am thrilled that I haven’t seen the “singular they”in the column. There are standards to uphold!

Four Songs to Keep You in the Moment: Carly Simon, Van Halen, Tears for Fears, and R.E.M.

Carly Simon singing about staying in the moment: “Anticipatin”

Namaste. Stay in the moment. Okay, try again.

In the seventh month of Covid we are frustrated: if only politicians listened to doctors and scientists, they could reduce the terrifying number of new cases here ( 1,200 a day) and unnecessary deaths.

I had to go three places to get a flu shot.

Live in the moment, we say. Appreciate this time without worry (or at least too much worry) about the future. “These are the good old days,” Carly Simon says in her lovely song, “Anticipation.”

Here are four songs to keep you in the moment, make you laugh, and feel joy.

Carly Simon’s wise and charming “Anticipation”

The joyful “Jump” by Van Halen

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by the whimsical Tears for Fears

The outrageously funny, sweet “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M., with Kate Pierson from the B-52s.


What Do I Really Think of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf

“What do I really think of Virginia Woolf?” I asked myself in 2018 during a snowstorm.

I asked myself, because the city was deserted. I was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant, reading The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf on an e-reader. I was happily perusing The Common Reader, On Being Ill, and The London Scene. That morning I had actually seen a portrait of Woolf at the nearly empty National Portrait Gallery.

I used to love everything about Virginia Woolf. In my twenties, I thought I’d never read anything more brilliant than Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I do love most of her books. But in 2018 I went from ecstasy to disillusion and even disapproval while I read her partly-autobiographical second novel, Night and Day. I was irritated by the snobbery and classism, by the patronizing attitude of Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine. To be fair, she does change during the novel. But I resolved that in future I would only read Woolf’s nonfiction, having a hunch her novels may not have been as astonishing as I’d thought.

Last week I overcame my petulance over her snobbishness during a breathless rereading of her vibrant novel, Between the Acts. Once my favorite book by Woolf, it was posthumously published in 1941. Although it is Modernist and experimental, it is entirely accessible to the common reader: the characters’ voices are seamlessly interwoven in a traditional narrative that highlights a domestic drama. And the history of England is commented on by a Greek chorus of villagers during a charming village pageant. The pageant is held on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by the Oliver family–for only 120 years.

Woolf knew a little about homespun theater, and the pageant reflects her experience. In 1922, she attended the rehearsal of a play by a women’s theater in London, which was written by a friend and directed by the famous Edy Craig. Woolf’s play, of course, has very different content: it is a history of England, told through verse, song, allegory and ribald dialogue. Like the play Woolf saw in London, this one is wirtten and directed by a woman, here the anxious Miss Latrobe. Woolf shares with us not only the comic performance of the play, but the reactions of the sharply-etched characters in the audience between the acts. In this odd novel, Woolf analyzes the subtle threads that bind the characters together, as the play portrays a changing England.

Poetry and verse permeate the narrative. We become well-acquainted with the central characters, the Oliver family, who live at Pointz Hall. Isa, the bored wife of Giles Oliver, secretly writes poetry, and walks around muttering verse to herself. Giles, a stockbroker who would have preferred to be a farmer, feels he has sacrificed everything to support the family, and is aware that Isa has a crush on someone else (it is, ironically, a gentleman farmer). And Giles is irritated when their wild neighbor, Mrs. Manresa, drops in for lunch with an unprepossing friend from London, William Dodge. Giles wonders, “What for does a good sort like the woman Manresa bring these half-breeds in her trail?”

The two older Olivers are as important in their way. Giles’s father Bartholomew laments the modern movement of history away from the civliization and etiquette of his youth; but his sister, the much more vivid Mrs. Swithin, sees the world from an entirely charming, whimsical perspective. In the following lyrical passage, we hear her thoughts about history.

But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the daw like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favorite reading–an Outline of History–and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the inguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

What a lovely book! And now I will reread Virginia Woolf. Yes, she is a snob, but she understood the changes in history, and recorded the changes as well as the feelings and thoughts of her characters. And so I now have both the fiction and nonfiction to read.