A Readerly Cat, a “Jane Eyre” Notebook, & Are You Charlotte, Emily, or Anne?

I am an allurophile (a cat fancier).  I have lived with, oh, fifteen or twenty cats over the years.   I’m not sure of the exact number.

It started when a friend’s roommate’s boss in Bean Blossom was giving away free kittens.  I wanted a free kitten, but I also aspired to visit Bean Blossom. (Southern Indiana is gorgeous and Bean Blossom is the home of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival.) The Siamese kitten turned out to be a genius who helped me get my master’s by providing much needed recreation.  She batted my pens and plopped down on Liddell and Scott (a Greek dictionary) when I did too much work. “No need to be a scholar,” she seemed to say.  Her favorite game was “Kakodaimon” (“evil genius”), in which she batted at a scary rag doll of the same name. She also raced up the curtains and hung by her claws from the fiberglass ceiling.  Her most mischieveous act:   knocking over a  professor’s Christmas tree when she boarded with him over winter break.

Uh oh, you may wonder:  Is this a satire in which an academic career in classics is ruined by a Siamese?  Nah, that’s probably one of Rita Mae Brown’s Sneaky Pie cat mysteries.

Anyway, we became allurophiles.  Every time I passed a sign for “Free Kittens,”  I came home with a new cat. Mind you, these are not collectible cats with pedigrees.  A box of tuxedo kittens at the Farmers’ Market?  I’ll take one, sure.  If we had more space I’d become a foster cat mom.

The adorable cat pictured at the top of this post used to be a very wild kitten: she mischievously hopped into the refrigerator if you weren’t looking.  You’d find her sitting on the lettuce…  that happened once!  Today she was in a readerly mood, though. She sat down with a copy of Wuthering Heights.  Or should I say beside Wuthering Heights?  Doesn’t she look serious?

I took snaps of my Bronte collection because Lolly, a longtime member of one of my book groups, gave me a really cute Charlotte Bronte notebook. I do love the purple flex-cover!  Yes, there’s a quote from Charlotte, but the opening pages of Jane Eyre are also printed in tiny print on the cover.   I am saving this journal for a special occasion.  Maybe for special Bronte notes.

The pages of the notebook are ruled not with lines but also with the text of Jane Eyre. I wonder if the entire text is in the notebook?

 

Anyway, I needed to look at my Bronte collection.  Here’s a snap.

And here’s my Heritage Press edition of Wuthering Heights.  It’s too tall to photograph with the others!

I can’t decide if my favorite Bronte is Villette or Wuthering Heights!  It was Wuthering Heights for many years, until I began to see my life less in terms of Gothic passion (Catherine and Heathcliff can be exhausting) than f work and everyday life spiced up by the occasional ghost and unsolicited Gothic laudanum trip (I am Lucy Snowe in Villette).

Life is extreme.  There’s no getting away from it.  And I’m Emily and Charlotte rather than Anne.

ARE YOU EMILY, CHARLOTTE, OR ANNE?  Male or female, you’re one of these if you love the Brontes!  Go ahead–choose one!

The “Bleak House” Journal: Notes on Reading Dickens

No fan of Dickens should scribble the following drivel in her journal:  “I read Bleak House because others don’t” (2012).  It isn’t even true. I was doodling.  Tens of thousands are reading Bleak House as we speak (probably).  Maybe tens of millions.

But people on the internet are often flummoxed by Dickens.  They speed through the succinct Tale of Two Cities  but are defeated by the bulk of Bleak House. In an online forum somebody wrote: “In doing a little research I ran across an article arguing that if Dickens were alive today he’d probably be writing soap operas, and I completely agree.”

This is a person who reads for plot not for language.  But as I scrawled in my journal I became as inky and indignant as one of my favorite characters in Bleak House, Caddy Jellyby, who miserably pens long letters dictated by her philanthropist mother about fund-raising for a project  in Borrioboola-Gha in Africa.  Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family.

Like Dickens fans John Irving and Desmond in Lost, I have reserved one of Dickens’s books to read in old age.  That does not mean I don’t go back to the others over and over.  In September I started rereading my favorite, Bleak House. And I’m recording some of my journal notes here, since I’m trying to get away from the bad habit of writing formulaic plot summaries–a trap we bloggers too often fall into.

September 26, 2018

I am reading quietly, interrupted only by the cats, and it does seem the best book I’ve read in ages. For a few hours a day I  am free from worry about politics, leaky roofs, tornado warnings, and renewing library cards and state IDs.

I love Dickens’ masterly use of English.  Where did he learn the rhetorical language?  His use of anaphora is flamboyant–acrobatics in a circus of repetition.   Here is one of the most famous passages.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The action pivots around a court case about a will.   In the nightmare world of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on for decades, and  the litigators kill themselves or go mad.  But the charming, well-educated orphan Esther Summerson shines a light on her circle.  Esther, whose lovely first-person narrative (“Esther’s Narrative”) is at the heart of the novel, is a kind of Cinderella character (not princessy, though).  Raised by a godmother who devastates her by saying she would have been better off unborn, Esther does not know her parentage.  Yet Esther, whose education is paid for by her guardian John Jarndyce, is the most filial, loving character of all.  First she becomes an adored teacher; then she is invited to Bleak House by John Jarndyce to live with two other orphans,  wards of court, pretty Ada  and witty Richard.  Richard, alas, believes Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich.

There is redemption among many of the orphans. Interestingly,  nuclear families are less nurturing than makeshift families.  (Are we talking about the 1960s?)   Orphans, bachelors, spinsters, elderly eccentrics, the mad, the poor, the single, and the rootless come together.  The nuclear families are damaging, among them the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, and the Skimpoles.

Esther is connected to everyone, I think.  But I won’t give away her lineage.

Enough!

What We Talk about When We Talk about Light Reading

Am I light?  Am I buoyant?

What a joke.

A Greek noun notebook.

Years ago a professor begged me to chat in a class of silent students because I was  “effervescent.” Those bubbles were an act.  Shortly thereafter I had a panic attack while drinking coffee with two pre-law students from that very  class.

I was overwhelmed by their normalcy.  I realized they probably did not have abortions, alcoholic husbands, or inhabit  converted chicken coops like the people I knew.  I truly did want to be their friend.  I smiled glazedly, said I had a class, and went home and memorized irregular Greek verbs instead.

Greek grammar was my light reading. It put me back together. Crosby and Schaeffer, our Greek textbook (called by the authors’ names), was my equivalent of the Valium doctors handed out like candy.  You would have laughed to see me  happily scribbling Greek declensions of nouns in front of a wood-burning stove at a friend’s “country house,” i.e., old farmhouse.  Who needed drugs?

Well, my bubbliness is long gone, but my light reading is a little more traditional.   We all love mysteries and Maeve Binchy, of course, but here are some other favorites.  And I’ll bet you’ve read some or all of them!

1.  EVERYONE LOVES E. F. BENSON’S LUCIA SERIES: 

  • Queen Lucia (1920)
  • Miss Mapp (1922)
  • Lucia in London (1927)
  • Mapp and Lucia (1931)
  • Lucia’s Progress (1935) (published in the U.S. as The Worshipful Lucia)
  • Trouble for Lucia (1939)

 In this satiric series of six novels, the outrageous Lucia dominates a quaint English village (first Riseholme, later Tilling).  She is determined to be the trendiest hostess, whether it means stealing Daisy Quantock’s yoga guru or feigning a knowledge of Italian.  She has rivals, the most famous being Miss Mapp of Tilling.  The books are peopled with quirky characters, including her charming  sidekick, Georgie, with whom she plots social coups and plays the first movement of Chopin’s Moonlight Sonata,

2.  DIARIES.  Whether you prefer a fictional diary such as Gogol’s Diary of a Madman or the diary of a great writer (I am reading Virginia Woolf’s),  you will be privy to secrets and prurient details. And did you know Everyman’s Library just published a new edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys?

3.  DOROTHY SAYERS’S LORD PETER WIMSEY MYSTERIES.  I adore this series of Golden Age detective novels, and Sayers’s charming, foppish amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  In one of my favorites, Have His Carcase, Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, takes a walking tour to escape everyday life–especially Peter’s frequent proposals of marriage.  But she finds a dead body on the beach–wouldn’t you know?–and by the time she gets to a phone, the body has washed out to sea.  How do you investigate a murder without a body? She and Peter Wimsey join forces.

4. Any adventure story by H. RIDER HAGGARD.  His sensational adventure novels are perfect for a rainy day.  In one of my favorites, She,  a Cambridge professor  and his ward  travel to Eastern Africa to investigate the mystery of an ancient pottery shard. They encounter a primitive tribe who pays obeissance to a mysterious white queen, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. How it fits together I don’t remember!

5. Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.  This is my favorite novel by Pym.  I love this whimsical quote from the book: “There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.”  We’ve all been there, haven’t we? At least to a writers’ conference…  Dulcie Mainwaring, a whimsical indexer, and snobbish Viola Dace both have crushes on Aylwin Forbes, the editor of a literary journal.  He speaks at the conference on “Some problems of an indexer.”  Really, what could be funnier?  And Dulcie is very good at doing “research” on Aylwin.  Eventually the two women become roommates.

I’m  interested in light reading in the dark autumn, so do recommend some favorites. 

Virginia Woolf’s Niece & A Shelf Arrangement Diary

I am reading and loving The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Five, 1936-1945.  In college I read A Writer’s Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, and admired this short fascinating volume.  She writes so elegantly:  she could make a notebook of scribbled website urls look interesting.  Thus I must share an amusing quotation from an entry which mentions my favorite book, War and Peace.

On January 11, 1936, Woolf recorded her niece’s short visit.  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; bare legs, socks, tousled hair; wanted to borrow the second vol. of War & Peace for Judith who’s had her tonsils out.”

Do nieces read War and Peace these days?  Perhaps secretly. At my house a visit from a niece would go more like this:  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; patched jeans, no socks, disheveled hair; wanted to borrow Peyton Place because she needed a trashy read after a chemistry midterm.”

Peyton Place, War and Peace–same number of syllables–I must be a genius!

I gave away two of my four copies of War and Peace, my favorite novel, because they were oversized and hurt my wrists to hold!

MY SHELF ARRANGEMENT DIARY!

Speaking of diaries, here is a Diary of a Shelf Arranger.

Years ago all my books fit in one bookcase.

Then my husband and  I “colonized” a run-down neighborhood by buying a cheap house.  The house was big and cold, and we wore jackets and fingerless gloves inside, but at least we had room for books.  In our love of collecting books, we drove all over the midwest and haunted used bookstores (including The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City) , library sales (we once went to one in Winona, Minnesota), and Borders everywhere.  All those old library books with mylar covers and tacky stickers on the spine!  And a copy of Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger for 50% off!

Years later, we have so many books.  And most have that  “worn-out old-book” look because they were already ancient when we bought them.

So should I arrange them in the style of  favorite used bookstores?  Or would that be too formal  for home life?

Here are a couple of methods I’m considering:

1. Shelf all the Folio Society books together (they do this at Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha).  The FS volumes are tall and oversized and look better together.   But if I put them together, I’ll break up my Thomas Hardy collection. Turns out I have the FS version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, illustrated with woodcuts by Peter Reddick. Did I buy it at  Jackson Street Booksellers?  I’d forgotten I had it.  I also have a Modern Library paperback of Tess, a 1950s Heritage Press edition with illustrations, and a Penguin Hardcover Classic.

Should I start a separate Tess section?

2. Create a Thomas Hardy section.  I HAD NO IDEA WE HAD SO MUCH THOMAS HARDY UNTIL I SHELVED ALL OUR BOOKS. A Penguin paperback and an Everyman’s Library hardback of The Woodlanders;  two Signets (one my husband’s) and an Oxford paperback of Jude the Obscure; three paperback copies and a Heritage Press hardback of my favorite, The Master of Casterbridge; Selected Poems and Collected Poems; and a few  Pocket Book collections of short stories with minuscule print  We also have a battered copy of The Well-Beloved holding up one of our windows.

3.  If I Create a Thomas Hardy section, I have to create a Dickens section, a Jane Austen section, a John Updike section, etc. 

4.  But wouldn’t it be better to go by centuries?  Shakespeare and Milton, 18th century, first half of 19th century, second half of 19th century, first half of 20th century, etc.  That’s the way I think of books–in terms of centuries!

5.  Put all the Library of America editions together.  That probably wouldn’t work, though.  I don’t have that many.

 I haven’t implemented any of these yet.   Any suggestions?  After I shelve them, I want to catalogue them…on index cards.

A Neglected Twentieth-Century Memoir: “Facts of Life” by Maureen Howard

Many great American women writers flourished in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  It was a boom time for American literature.   Discerning women read with excitement the award-winning work of Mary McCarthy, Maureen Howard, Jean Stafford, and Alison Lurie, who captured, often satirically, features of American women’s lives.  Their piquant wit, gritty realism, and glittering prose should have won them a place in the canon.  But has it?

One of the most neglected divas of American literature is Maureen Howard, whose baroque sentences in her tetralogy of novels about the seasons (A Lovers’ Almanac, Big As Life, The Silver Screen, and The Rags of Time)  left me breathless. She won the National Critics Circle Award in 1978 for her memoir Facts of Life, which is now, astonishingly, out-of-print. Howard seems to be forgotten.  Yet only a decade ago Jess Row in The New York Times praised the complexity of The Rags of Time.   Row compared it to “one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes full of minutely arranged objects.”

I concentrate on Howard’s graceful style and unusual characters as I reread Facts of Life, a memoir of growing up Irish Catholic in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  This montage of gritty vignettes,  dramatic scenes, and fragments is gorgeously-constructed. It is fascinating but not an easy read, because Howard is  demanding and unsentimental.  I have marked so many passages I want to share, but here is an especially vivid descriptions of Howard’s mother, a  teacher who was devoted to her parents.

“In the role of the educated promising daughter my mother failed.  Her father had really wanted a safe local schoolteacher, an aging girl correcting papers up in her maidenly room. … But it was her own money in the Bridgeport Savings Bank.”

Maureen’s mother fell in love and married a low-paid detective when she was 33.  As a housewife and mother, she still relentlessly made use of her education at Smith College to introduce Maureen and her brother George to the arts.  But after the kids  grew up and  moved to New York, their mother gave up culture and reverted to watching  Lawrence Welk with their father.  Was it all a sham before? They were never sure.   George became a strange artistic man:  he lived in semi-squalor but at one time knew who was dancing the lead role in the ballet.  He liked “Orange crates and real Picassos.  Thousands of records and books, but no dishes, no curtains.”

Maureen is split between high culture and pop culture.  She writes,

“While I’m split, split right down the middle, all sensibility one day, raging at the vulgarities that are packaged as art, the self-promotion everywhere, the inflated reputations.  In such a mood I am unable to sit in a theater or pick up a recently written book.  I am quite crazy as I begin to read in stupefying rotation–Anna Karenina, Bleak House, Persuasion, Dubliners, St. Mawr, Tender Is the Night, The Wings of the Dove.  I play the Chopin Mazurkas until the needle wears out….  The atmosphere I demand is so rarefied it is stale and I know it.”

Sound familiar?

I am loving this memoir and urge you to read it if you can find a copy.

Welcome to Thornfield Hall

I am Kat, the writer of the new blog, Thornfield Hall.  You may know me from Mirabile Dictu, an online book journal I wrote for six years.

Every writer reaches a stage in her career when her or she is fatigued or blocked.  She sits at an untidy desk and writes on an ugly gray computer.  For fun, she reviews small-press books nobody else will touch (her friend the literary magazine editor went to school with the small-press editor).

And she has a blog, of course.  But she is tired of it.

What to do next?

I am experimenting with a new kind of writing (for me): “journaling” about bookish topics in a notebook.  After years of typing blog posts directly on a typewriter or computer, drafting by hand  feels innovative.

Diaries and journals have long been a favorite genre.  We love the diaries of Samuel Pepys, and didn’t we have a  diary with a lock and key before Moleskines?  In Michael Pietrza’s article at Success, “How Journaling by Hand Changed My Life,” he describes the enhanced creative experience of writing in a notebook.  It was a Zen experience:  he felt refreshed and calmer after writing 30 minutes a day.  And, according to a study at the University of Washington, children write faster with pen on paper than on computers and tend to write more complete sentences by hand.  Pietrza says adults experience the same increased efficiency.

So far, I am enjoying the journaling.  Connecting with the pen on page is radically different from typing:  I feel things more intensely and see things more clearly.   Who knew?  I’m as surprised as you are.

I needed a change.  Blogging used to be fun!   It had a wacky originality. There were zany, witty notes about books in progress and bookaholicism rather than book hauls.  Now the typical book blogger attempts informal reviews and follows a trajectory:  how he or she discovered the book, a long plot summary, and personal reactions.  (I have done this too!)

And bloggers began to get bored and burn out.  Lyn at I Prefer Reading wrote in her last blog post in 2017:  “I’ve been blogging for over 7 years…. I feel as though it’s time to take a break & reassess the blog & what I want to do with it.”  And Tom Cunliffe stopped writing  A Common Reader a few years ago.  He told me by email that he began to dread writing twice a week.

The format of this new blog will be slightly different, but the bookishness will remain. Now I  inhabit the Gothic house which Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, and his mad wife Bertha briefly inhabited.  Two of my favorite books are Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a retelling of the mad wife’s story).

Hope to see you here soon!