Not Quite in Lockdown: Astronauts & Booksellers

We’re not in lockdown, but we’ve been asked to stay home except for necessary trips to the store, pharmacy, etc. We’re  despondent. We wish they could have rolled this out weeks ago, one thing at a time.  But we keep telling ourselves, Buck up!  And thanking our blessings for what we’ve got.

I keep asking myself, What would my mother do?  And though she was terrified of storms, she survived floods and tornadoes. Her church was destroyed by a tornado and her finished basement was afloat with debris during a flood.  

This is what we’ve got:  lockdown, or not quite lockdown.  And we take hope where we find it.  Have you been reading about bookstores with curbside service, or book delivery by bicycle?  Wouldn’t the latter be fun?

Here is the best thing I’ve read all day:  Astronaut Scott Kelly’s essay, “I spent a year in space. I know something about isolation.”

It begins,

Being stuck at home can be challenging. When I lived on the International Space Station for nearly a year, it wasn’t easy. When I went to sleep, I was at work. When I woke up, I was still at work. Flying in space is probably the only job you absolutely cannot quit.

But I learned some things during my time up there that I’d like to share — because they are about to come in handy again, as we all confine ourselves at home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Here are a few tips on living in isolation, from someone who has been there.

Stay safe and calm!

And good wishes from Thornfield Hall.

Slamming the Doors of Libraries

You were there when the library closed, long a dream of many conservative Republicans.  You stood in the lobby, waiting for a friend, not daring to touch the books–you, the venturesome and fearless. The very few people in the  non-fiction section smiled from afar.  Inevitably, they were alone.  Perhaps anything was better than being alone.  

And so the doors slammed.  You hadn’t expected it.  You had received an official email explaining the library would stay stay open to serve the community as long as it was safe.

And so, you fantasized, you would take trip to the university library so you could check out some obscure books you would need in the next few weeks.

Slam. It closed, too. 

Thank God you have your own books.

Where do the bums go, as we used to call the homeless?  They sat at the library all day,  all winter long, except when the security guard kicked them out. Then they sat in a little park.

Meanwhile you begged, pleaded, with relatives to stay home from work.  Nobody took it seriously.  Or if they did, they hadn’t read about Italy and didn’t take it seriously enough.  “Please read this.”  You sent links.

Then they came home, one by one.  They came home with computers, files, and phones. They set up home offices in whatever corner they had.  

In a country where stores are never closed–not even on holidays–people are petrified.

And bored.  So very bored.

“Welcome to the occupation,” as R.E.M sang back in the ’80s (only that was about policy in Central America).

Only now it’s germs.

Chic Home-Office Wear & Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”


 It’s a pajama day, because I am doing my best to relax in this jittery time–but today I exchanged my soft jeans for a slightly more upscale style.  

I have an extensive wardrobe of pajama-type garments. I do not have the 1930s beachwear pajamas jumpsuits (above left), but if you can sew, perhaps you can make your own. Today I dragged a black sweater and forgotten stretch pants (just like the ones in the 1961 Sears catalogue above) from the bottom of a trunk.  If you have not Marie Kondo-ed your house, you wil find rummaging in an old trunk the equivalent of shopping. The malls are closed, so what else?   And it is the perfect time to be super-casual, because you’ll find your co-workers are equally blasé in their home offices or crowded family-filled houses. 

WHAT ARE YOU READING?  Maybe P. G. Wodehouse? Or Carol Shields?  I recommend Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s enjoyable book,  A New England Nun and Other Stories.  This has gathered dust on my shelves,  possibly because Freeman (1852-1930) used to be dismissed as a “regional” writer.  Yes, her books are set in New England, but why is that regional?  

Freeman’s unshowy prose is effortlessly graceful and her plots absorbing. Every word matters:  no sentence is a throw-away.  She is known for portraits of independent women in New England villages and small towns:  their social positions vary, but everyone has a crisis to surmount.

In one of her most famous stories, “A New England Nun,” the heroine, Louisa Ellis, is very pretty and gentle.  Her long-distance fiancé, Joe Doggett, has worked 14 years to make his fortune in Australia.   Now Joe is back, and she is bewildered.

From the first paragraph, Freeman describes Louisa’s quiet life through nature and the objects around her. 

It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.  There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard….  There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence–a very premonition of rest and hush and night.”

Louisa is happy drinking her solitary tea and listening to her canary chirp. She is not looking forward to a visit from Joe. What strangely disconcerts her is his hugeness:  he seems to fill up the room, and brings in dust from the outdoors. Will these two really marry?

In “A Moral Exigency,” the heroine, Eunice, refuses to marry Mr. Wilson, a widower with four children.   Her father insists it is “an opportunity,” but Eunice says, “I don’t think I should care for that kind of opportunity.”  It’s not that she’s cold:  she loves another man.  But duty can get in the way of affection. 

In “A Mistaken Charity,” two old women are dragged from their hovel to live in an old people’s home. It’s not a poorhouse out of Dickens, but the sisters miss their hovel.  What unfolds reminds me of an episode of Grace and Frankie.  Did the TV writers read this story?

I also very much enjoyed The Jamesons, a comic novella about a small New England town turned topsy-turvy when the Jamesons move in.  Mrs Jameson is domineering and insists on reading Browning aloud for hours. Very, very funny–very different from the stories.


Remember Talk Talk?

I sometimes pretend the last concert I went to was by Talk Talk.  I may have seen Bob Dylan more recently, but the former makes a better story.

Anyway, here’s a video of Talk Talk playing “It’s My Life.” An article online says. “The video shows Mark Hollis at the London Zoo in Regent’s Park, but he’s not singing – his mouth is digitally obscured as he stands among the exhibits. The rest of the footage came from the BBC nature series Life on Earth.”  The song doesn’t seem connected to the video, but it makes me happy to see zebras and flamingos.

Here’s to the wild animals!  


Living in Doris Lessing’s World: A Pandemic Unforeseen

I get it.  I don’t want to, but I do.  Men think they’re invincible. How wonderful that must be.

There is still a crazed notion here that COVID-19 is just the flu.  Everything I’ve read contradicts this; everything you’ve read contradicts this. Since the outbreak here can be traced to a small group of vacationers returning from a cruise, people assume it is contained. They are not reading enough newspapers, whereas I’m at the point where I can make charts with colored pins and sticky notes, like  Martha Quest and  Mark in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City.  But unlike the narrator of her apocalyptic novel, Memoirs of a Survivor, I cannot gather information from people on the street.

It’s actually unclear to me whether it is safe to take walks. There are so many gaps in these articles.   When we went out yesterday for a walk, I broke all rules of etiquette and crossed the street if I saw a person coming.  Mind you, hardly anybody was out.  My husband is so stubborn that he mocked a person who was walking in the street.  Frankly, that was the smartest person I saw all day.

Infectious disease experts are saying, “Work at home,” but not all employers have approved this homework situation (yet).  We’re a little behind here, just beginning to take it seriously.  The universities, schools, movie theaters, and libraries are closed.  The mayor declared  a city emergency and squelched the chutzpah of a belligerent group who had refused to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade. 

Mind you, I’m not panicking. We are all in a state of derealization. That’s a joke, but it’s also true you can’t take it all in.  I pay close attention to the details in the op/ed pieces by experts, but am more critical of journalists’ accounts of what’s unfolding.  Sometimes there is a note of hysteria, for which I cannot blame them. 

But why, oh why, didn’t the Senate meet this weekend to approve the relief bill drafted by the House?   Isn’t this a National Emergency? 

But two things we know for sure:  keep on washing your hands and avoid the crowd.

Musings on Current Events & Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is dismaying to pick up the newspaper and read more every day about lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, library closings, canceled sports events, social distancing, and death. Everyone is freaked-out, or plain terrified.  And the more you read, the more you realize all you can do is wash your hands, which, honestly, you do a lot of anyway. 

Perhaps the hardest thing about living in the time of the virus is not being able to take a break to go to a movie or some other form of entertainment.  Although it might not (would not!) be wise to go to a movie now, you are willing to take a bottle of Clorox and disinfect the whole theater if necessary–when you learn the theater is closed. 

Some people online are unhappy because their libraries are closed. And that is horrible, almost unbelievable. You do want your library books. They’re recommending e-books.  

THESE DAYS I’M TRYING TO READ MORE BOOKS THAN NEWSPAPERS. IT’S GOOD FOR THE SOUL.  And so I have turned to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novels are laced with a Puritanical dark humor that fits very well with our own stressful times. (Somebody somewhere is writing a satiric novel about our times that will one day make us laugh.) And, in case you didn’t care to read Hawthorne  after studying The Scarlet Letter with an English teacher who used Cliff Notes, let me  recommend  Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and The House of the Seven Gables. Both are actually better than The Scarlet Letter.

The House of Seven Gables is not as charming as The Blithedale Romance (I posted about it here), but it is a brilliant, graceful novel, a romance of loss and renewal.  His style is almost unbearably elegant–you find yourself reading and rereading sentences–and there are  also thrilling Gothic elements, among them witchcraft, mesmerism, and a doomed upper-class family. Hawthorne begins with a detailed history of the Pyncheons, owners of the House of Seven Gables, and their ancestor’s feud over the property with one Matthew Maule, reputed to be a wizard.  Witchcraft, mesmerism, lost deeds and greed are interwoven with the history of the House of Seven Gables.  

One of the highlights of the book is our first meeting with poor, lonely Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon.  Hawthorne is sympathetic but also humorous in his description of the spinster, whose face always seems to be frowning.  This isolated old woman wakes up one morning knowing it is the day she must abandon the dignity of her class to open a small shop in the house.  It is a fall from the upper class, but she has been getting poorer every year, and must earn money.

Hawthorne describes Miss Hepzibah’s isolation, the locks and keys between her and her young, cheeful lodger.

[We presume] to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody, save a disembodied listener like ourself.  The Old Maid was alone in the old house.  Alone, except for a certain respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerrotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable–quite a house by itself, indeed–with locks, bolts, and oaken bars, on all the intervening doors.  Inaudible, consequently, were poor Miss Hepzibah’s gusty sighs…. Evidently, this is to be a day of more than ordinary trial to Miss Hepzibah, who, for over a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures.

Opening the shop is an agonizing event in Miss Hepzibah’s life, but is not quite the crux of the book. There are two arrivals–the first that of Miss Hepzibah’s young cousin, Phoebe, from the country.  And Phoebe is Miss Hepziabah’s savior:  this cheerful young woman likes serving in the shop, and she soon builds a thriving business.  (People were afraid of Miss Hepzibah, but love pretty Phoebe.)

And then Miss Hepzibah’s mentally ill brother, Clifford, returns from Europe.  He is so frail that he hardly responds to anyone but Phoebe. Hepzibah is grateful, because he has always been the central person in Hepzibath’s life, and she would sacrifice anything to make him happy. They become a family of three.   But there are two possible threats from the outside:  the attractive, interesting lodger, who seems very genial, but has an odd intereste in the family history.  Hetells Phoebe a strange story about mesmerism by a descendant of Matthew Maule and  his hypnotism of her ancestor, Alice Pyncheon.  I was so terrified I put the book aside for a while, and Phoebe tuned out the story.  The second, and real threat is the prosperous Judge Pyncheon, a respected man in the community who destroyed Clifford’s life long ago.  He insists he wants the other Pyncheons to live with him at his country house.

In the  melodramatic introduction to my 1935 Heritage Press copy, Van Wyck Brook explains that this dark novel is based on Hawthorne’s impressions and observations of his hated hometown, Salem, Massachusettss.  He returned there as a an adult and socialized with innkeepers and sailors who told him dark stories about the town.  Van Wyck Brook writes of Hawthonrne;  “HIs mind was a twilight mind. Sometimes he even doubted his own existence.  He had lived as a ghost lives, for twelve years, under the eaves of the house in Herbert Street, only appearing for a walk at nightfall.”

Great reading in the time of… I almost said cholera.

No Dystopian Novels: Reading During a Pandemic


Soon it will look like this.

It’s official.  Your travel plans are canceled.  You will have an extended spring break at home.   And March Madness basketball will be played in empty arenas.

But we’re cool.  Very cool. 

On a lovely spring day, life proceeds much as usual. Today it’s sunny, if a little cool, and we’re putting a ban on reading articles about the virus.  And since you’re probably looking for escape reading, let me recommend a few novels that are must-reads–some even classics.

Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy traces three generations “of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century.” Gorgeous writing.  I couldn’t put it down.

If you’ve never read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicles, it’s time for a binge-read. Praised by Hilary Mantel,  this brilliant family saga spans the years from 1937 to 1956. I was so absorbed in the first novel, The Light Years, that I rode past my bus stop.

Balzac’s The Human Comedy consists of ninetysome novels, novellas, and stories. My favorite is Cousin Bette, a masterpiece in which a middle-aged spinster schemes to ruin the family who has neglected her.   But, really, I’ve loved them all–even those in awkward, possibly censored 19th-century translations.

Want to go to another universe? There are problems everywhere.  But I  recommend Ann Leckie’s award-winning science fiction trilogy, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy.  It’s complicated–the soldier, Breq, used to be the brain in a spaceship , and has been installed in a human body.  She is on the rampage to right some wrongs.  Really fascinating, part noir, part Western, part SF.

Georgette Heyer’s The Transformation of Philip Jetta.  This is my favorite Georgette Heyer. Take Philip Jettan, a handsome but rustic aristocrat, who is loved but disapproved of by a suave girlfriend and even suaver father. He goes to France, determined to learn better manners even than the French.  To say he moves in a fast set is an understatement, and he certainly surprises the English.  You can read this free at Project Gutenberg.