Loving “Middlemarch,” Charmed by Mildred Walker’s “The Southwest Corner,” & Intrigued by R. F. Kuang’s “Babel”

I was wearing pajama shorts, a CAT MOM t-shirt,  and tennies as I sat in front of the fan, ready to leap up and turn on the air conditioner if the temp hit 90.  When you’ve endured extreme weather – like biking for two hours when it’s 90 degrees, and then being chased on a trail by a horrible boys’ cross-country team who used my bike to pace them – yes, this really happened – you’re ready to spend the day in a comfortable, cool house.

The light looks like autumn:  slanting, softer.  Some believe fall starts after Labor Day, others that it begins September 22, the official date of the change of season.  But even temps in the 80s make me feel it is fall. 

Anyway, I have embarked on my fall reading program.  I am almost done with Middlemarch, and loving it.  Daniel Deronda is my favorite book by Eliot –  an elaborate novel partly about the consequences of a pretty, vain young woman’s marriage to a sadist – poor Gwendolyn marries him because he is rich and her family has lost all their money. It is also about attractive Daniel Deronda’s habit of saving women – first Gwendolyn, who confides in him when she is in trouble, and then Miriam, a Jewish singer whom he saves from suicide. It is also about Daniel’s exploration of Judaism after he discovers that he is Jewish. His view of the world and the people he had stereotyped slowly changes.   

Middlemarch has never held much interest for me, but this time I am loving it, reading it as a Victorian soap opera. The inhabitants of Middlemarch, a provincial town, are shaped, changed, strengthened, or destroyed by misconceptions, gossip, lack of imagination, and money (or lack thereof).  Money is very important – the focus of much of the book.

Eliot’s prose is graceful and witty, and she does a superb job of developing the characters.  Indeed, there are so many characters that I intend to introduce you only to a few.  On my first reading, I did not find them particularly engaging.  I was interested only in Dorothea Brooke, a bright, willful young woman who makes the mistake at 20 of marrying a middle-aged scholar, the first intellectual she has met.  Everyone around her knows this is a mistake, but no one can stop her. Mr. Casaubon is an unattractive, absent-minded, neglectful husband and  indifferent scholar. Worse, as Dorothea’s sister Celia points out, is the existence of  two moles on his face, with hair growing out of them.  Celia’s observation exasperates Dorothea. Dorothea works so hard as her husband’s amanuensis that she even begins to study Latin and Greek.

The opposite of Dorothea is lazy, likable Fred Vincy, who failed his exams at Oxford and refuses to fulfill his father’s ambition for him of becoming a clergyman. He goes into debt, unworried because he expects to inherit the estate of his uncle, Mr. Pennyfeather.  Fred often visits his uncle, but mainly because he is in love with Mary Garth, Mr. Featherstone’s nurse and housekeeper.  Mary has taken this job because she hates teaching. Ironically, Mary is responsible for Fred’s not inheriting the estate:  Mr. Pennyfeather made two wills, and when he was dying asked Mary to burn one of them.  She refused, because she thought it would be immoral to tamper with his wills.  And thus the money does not go to Fred, which of course is good for Fred’s temperament, because now he will have to work.  And Mary will not marry a man who does not work.

Mary is my favorite of the three principal women characters in Middlemarch.  If only Eliot had spent more time with Mary!  I would have loved to know more of her history, of her growing up in a poor family where her strong-minded mother taught them while she baked and did housework.

The other woman character, Rosamund Vincy, Fred’s sister, is very pretty, and very shallow.  She sets out to fascinated Lydgate, the  handsome new doctor who cures Fred of typhus and studies science by night. And so when the two marry, he is astonished to learn her true, grasping, social-climbing character.  She miscarries after an accident on a horse, after he had asked her not to go riding, but she insists that she would have miscarried anyway.   And you can imagine what happens to Lydgate’s dreams of scientific discoveries, as he goes into debt to support Rosamund.

Will Ladislaw, who becomes the editor of a newspaper owned by Dorothea’s uncle, is the second cousin of Mr. Casaubon.  Will admires pretty, brilliant Dorothea, but Mr. Casaubon refuses to admit him to the house, because he is jealous.

My favorite male character by far is Mr. Farebrother, a charming vicar whose only fault is playing whist in order to supplement his income:  he must support his mother, sister, and aunt. He is in love with Mary, and naturally her mother thinks he would be the best match for Mary – as do I – but love is blind.

Yes, I’ve only talked about the characters, not the structure or Eliot’s philosophy, but that’s where I’m living right now – with George Eliot’s characters, as I near the end of Middlemarch.

FOR FANS OF GLADYS TABER.  I am a fan of Mildred Walker, the author of The Curlew’s Cry and Winter Wheat, both set in Montana. The author lived for long periods in Montana and Vermont, and all but two of her books are set in Montana.

I recently read her short novel, The Southwest Corner, set in Vermont, which reminds me of Gladys Taber’s books.  Both writers describe nature, the seasons, and living in the country. The Southwest Corner is the quiet story of Marcia Elder, a retired teacher who, at 83, realizes that she can no longer live alone in her farmhouse.

Walker’s writing is plain but engaging.  She writes,

It had been the longest winter Marcia Elder remembered in all her 83 years. So many days of waking up to frosted windows and unbroken snow across the field, and the front path even with the meadow.  Orville Greenstead came by every day or so, but he had tired of keeping the walk shoveled.

Marcia has never considered moving.  Then on a spring-like day, she  leaves the house to take a long walk and sits down and falls asleep.  When she wakes up it is snowing, and she is so cold that she can barely walk back to the house.  She is too exhausted to light the fire – it is difficult for her to carry the wood – and she falls asleep under a blanket, in a freezing house. 

And so she advertises for a housemate. The arrangement she makes with Bea, a bossy middle-aged woman, is awkward, and Marcia finds herself dominated by her . I loved this book mostly for Marcia’s observations of nature, and though I was anxious, I knew from the preface that all would turn out well in the end.

THE TROUBLE WITH INSTAGRAM. The photos of books are too pretty! Instagram inspired me to begin R. F. Kuang’s Babel, a fantasy set in an alternative Oxford.  A group of students, one Chinese, one Indian, and the other two girls, whose identities preclude them from being admitted to most Oxford colleges, attend Oxford’s  mysterious Institute of Languages.

I love the charming Author’s Note (really an essay) on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular.

She writes,

The trouble with writing an Oxford novel is that anyone who has spent time at Oxford will criticize your text to determine if your representation of Oxford aligns with their own memories of the place.  Worse if you are an American writing about Oxford, for what do Americans know about anything?  I offer my defence here.

Kuang is a brilliant, imaginative writer – far above the standard of most fantasy novelists – but I read this at bedtime, so I may have to skim some parts.   There’s a hint of Brideshead Revisited here, crossed with Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines. It’s great fun, but 544 pages.

A Great End-of-Summer Read: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “Medea and Her Children”

You might expect a Russian novel called Medea and Her Children to be dark and tinged with horror.  I assure you, it is not that Medea. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s heroine, Medea Georgievna Sinoply Mendez, is the childless, widowed, beloved matriarch of a large Greek family in Russia.  She speaks passable Pontic Greek, which lags 1,000 years behind Modern Greek; she is the “last remaining pure-blooded Greek of a family settled since time immemorial on the Tauride coast, a land still mindful of its ties with ancient Greece.”

In this buoyant extended-family saga, Ultiskaya scrutinizes the complicated lives of dozens of characters.  (There is a family tree at the beginning of the book.)  Every spring and summer, Medea’s relatives gather at her small house in the Crimea.  They bring their problems with them, but they are soothed by the charm and simplicity of Medea’s house near the sea. 

In the spring, her nephew, Georgii, a geologist, is the first to arrive, accompanied by his son, Artyom.  Georgii heads for the wooden hut with the toilet, because it has the best view of the twin  mountains tapering down to the sea.  He also enjoys sitting in the chilly summer kitchen at night with Medea over a late dinner.  And there is something humorous about Medea’s insistence on small portions at meals:  if someone wants a second helping, she suggests they take a piece of bread. 

 Georgii would like to move to the Crimea, where he knows he would have a good life.  He has spent the last 10 years writing a dissertation he cannot finish, “and which sucked him into itself like an evil quagmire if he went anywhere near it.”  He wants to leave the city and start over: he becomes more and more determined as the summer progresses.

The doings of the Sinoply family fascinate two mousy summer visitors down the road, Nora and her daughter, Tanya.  Nora admires their courage greatly:  while she and Tanya are terrified of a poisonous snake, Georgii and his son pick it up and examine it with fascination.  Nora starts to come out of her shell after the Sinoplies invite her and Tanya to take a camping trip with them at the seaside.  There is always room for one or two more at Medea’s, and they are assimilated into the extended family. 

 Medea’s great-niece, Masha, is a stable wife and mother of a son these days, but she is fragile:  she attempted suicide as an unhappy child.  After her parents died in a car accident, she lived with her mad grandmother, who referred to Masha as their “murderer.” Fortunately, her great-aunt Alexandra took Masha in and raised her with her own children: Masha became especially close to Alexandra’s daughter, Nike.  

Encouraged by sexy, promiscuous Nike, a divorcee and relaxed mother of two, Masha initiates an affair with Butonov, a handsome sports doctor who is vacationing in the Crimea.  What she doesn’t know is that Nike and Butonov are also having a casual affair. Blithely ignorant, Masha writes poems and letters to Butonov, who groans when he receives them.  It never occurs to either Butonov or Nike what the consequences might be if Masha finds out about them. 

Medea herself has had her trials.  She was happily married to a dentist, Samuel, who she assumed was faithful to her.  After his death, she found letters about his affair with her sister, Alexandra, and learned that her niece, Nike, was Samuel’s child.  Medea sets out to confront Alexandra in Moscow, but only gets as far as Theodosia, where she visits her best friend Elena (also her sister-in-law).  She enjoys her conversations with Elena, and realizes a confrontation with Alexandra might end in a break between the  sisters. 

Medea and Her Children, translated from Russian by Arch Tait, is a  perfect book to read at the end of summer. Summer in the Crimea seems blissful! And we never before considered summer in the Crimea. This novel was nominated for the Russian Booker Award in 1997, and Ulitskays has won numerous literary prizes in Russia, Italy, Austria, France, and China, and was nominated for the International Booker Prize in 2009.

What Is Your Favorite “Brand-Name” Publisher of Classics?


Do you have a favorite “brand-name” publisher of classics?

There are quantities of choices:  Penguin, Dover, and countless other companies publish their own line of classics.  Jane Austen must keep them from bankruptcy:  there cannot be much demand for Eiric the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas or Polybius’s The Rise of the Roman Empire.

I do have a lot of Penguins.  On the bookcase in front of me are several black-cover Penguins, among them Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low (this is an older Penguin, with a yellow frame around the cover art), Natsume Soseki’s Botchan, Plato’s Republic, and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. I thought all the Penguin classics  had endnotes, until I checked the Japanese novels – these do not – nor does my 1970 copy of Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low. So perhaps the abundant notes are a recent phenomenon. 

I am also fond of Oxford World Classics, which I consider to be in the same class as Penguins.  Most of my Oxfords were published this century, so all have an introduction, notes, and a chronology of the author’s life with the main historical events in another.  I have a few older used Oxfords (Trollopes) with yellow covers –  and I don’t believe those do have notes.  But they are all perfectly durable and readable, with notes or without.

Few classics publishers provide footnotes. That is the advantage of Penguins and Oxfords.  I am a huge fan of the Vintage classics, because I love the covers, but if you want notes, forget it. I do enjoy reading these pretty Vintage  paperbacks of Dickens and the Brontes, but some may be to-be-read once editions, because the paper quality varies.

Modern Library paperbacks used to look dull, but they are sturdy and usually have good-sized print.  Lately they have spruced up the design.  And some of them do have notes!

Some of my used paperback classics are from defunct publishers. Were the old Everyman paperbacks published by Everyman’s Library? I also have some used ’80s Hogarth Press paperbacks of E. F. Benson (okay, not quite a classic) and a few obscure 19th-century writers.  

Are you a Penguin fan? Do you collect new or used paperbacks by certain publishers?  Do you choose one “brand” over another?

Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” & “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

Claire Keegan’s stunning novella, Small Things Like These,  longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is written in such spare, chiseled prose that there is an emotional disconnect.  The contrast between the subtle style and the hero’s emotions is chillingly effective.  The writing is gorgeous, yet restrained.

It is the Christmas season in Ireland in 1985. The middle-aged protagonist, Bill Furlong, a small-town merchant who delivers coal, turf, slack,  logs, and anthracite, is wondering what his life is for.  He contemplates heroism in a moment of weakness, or strength, depending on your point-of-view.  There will be consequences, because his depression and heroism are interlinked.  

Furlong is wretchedly unhappy. He and his wife struggle to take care of their large family.  His monotonous work routine supports their five daughters, two of whom are at an expensive Catholic school.  He worries about money, about his own misery, about the worn-out tires on his delivery truck. 

One early Sunday morning, he delivers wood to the convent, and finds a barefoot, half-frozen girl locked in the woodshed.  He marches her to the convent:  the girl says, “Won’t you ask them about my baby?” He talks to the nuns, who pretend to be concerned about the girl, not to have known where she was, and they send her to take a bath and cook her an enormous breakfast.  They also deliver a veiled warning to Furlong.   

The nuns are running a Magdalen laundry.  Furlong has heard stories, but never knew what to believe.  Now he identifies with the imprisoned girl because of his background: he was an illegitimate child, raised by his mother, a domestic worker who got pregnant when she was 16, and he didn’t end up in an orphanage or an institution, because Mrs. Wilson, his mother’s kind employer, let them stay. He grew up in Mrs. Wilson’ kitchen.  

And so he worries about the girl.  Both his wife and another woman warn him about the power of the church, and tell him he needs to forget what he has seen. 

This book is about his dilemma.  

I admired this novella very much.  It was only afterwards that I realized the voice was perhaps a little too restrained.  But this does not mean it isn’t a perfect book.  It is.

 My complaint:  it should have been longer.This is the third Booker-longlisted book I’ve read this summer.  My favorite is Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, and Keegan’s novella, which is perfect in another style, comes in second.  

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

This summer I keep thinking about the lyrics of Elvis Costello’s song, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” 

 Because the summer has been spoiled by our next-door neighbors.  Not surprising – everybody has neighbors like that – but these are worse, because they’re Republican.  Years ago they posted a sign for a Republican candidate in our yard.  I marched over and told them to take it down immediately.  “We do not support that man or his beliefs.”

In the summer, we used to love sitting outside with a book. Not so much anymore, because the Repubs are noisy and have noisy guests.  Can you read while people in the pool are yelling, “Whe-e-w-w!” or swearing at the top of their lungs?  Just as you might suspect, the Repubs are trashy talkers. 

There is a constant stream of visitors.  We are curious about the two mysterious women who arrive every night at 11:30 and leave at 6 a.m.  I can’t imagine what they’re doing there.   Perhaps they are hookers, drug dealers… we’ll never know.

The most disruptive of their guests hold pool and hot tub parties .  The “guests” park on the street and traipse up the driveway into their back yard.  It occurred to us that the neighbors are probably renting out their pool and hot tub (perhaps via AirB&B).   

They are in violation of a city pool ordinance that decrees the gate to the fence around the pool must be shut and locked at all time. Their gate has been open and unlocked all summer.  Perhaps the inspector will come by sometime…

Now here’s a more normal complaint, though it is very upsetting:  they damaged (killed) some of our hostas when they power-washed their fence. The dirty water gushed through the slats.   But the Repubs claim our hostas, which we planted long before they moved here, are on their land.  (If so, why didn’t they fence it off with the rest of their yard?)

Next time they have a Repub fundraiser, I do think we should put up Democrat signs on their lawn.  We prefer to keep our political beliefs off our lawn.  It only makes for bad feeling.

Meanwhile, let me recite Elvis Costello’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding? 

Here are the lyrics.

As I walk through this wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?
And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony
‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony
‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

The Pop-up Book Club: Debriefing at the Safe House

Smokey Row in Pella

Our long-distance book club meets once a year, twice max, and we are not at all well-organized about choosing date and place. It is, we’ve decided, a “pop-up” group.  We’re rather like Smiley’s people, planning at the last minute to converge on a safe house for a top-secret debriefing.  Shall we go to Smokey Row in Pella?  Or beautiful Dubuque, where we can browse at the bookstore and walk by the Mississippi bluffs after the meeting?

Why don’t we just use Zoom?   Oh, no.  We don’t do that.  It’s not even human.  We meet in person, however inconvenient.

Sue, who lives in Mount Pleasant, writes on our email round-robin: “Rocky’s finally out of the basement and going to college. Can we meet in September?” (Rocky is her son.)

September is fine!  

And what book will we be reading?  Well, gosh, nobody has thought about that.   

We love to read for book club.  We read anything.  We’ve enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s August Folly, Turgenev’s Smoke, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and  Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton.

“I feel smarter at book club.  I remember being smarter…once,”  Sue says mournfully.

Our friend Janet’s theory:  “We unlock each other’s smartness, since we were together at the university.” 

If we’re so smart, how did we end up in Ankeny? That is our group’s ironic motto.  Ankeny is a bedroom community, consisting  entirely of strip malls and an Amazon warehouse.  Nobody we know lives there – but someone must live there – so it’s code for living nowhere, where most of us live.  

There have been a few suggestions for our September book selection. Janet would like to read a collection of poems by Ada Limón, the new Poet Laureate.  I am leaning toward Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Rochester’s mad wife, a  novel that is Rhys’s answer to Jane Eyre.  Sue is dying to read Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker Prize.  In September,  Strout’s new book about Lucy and William, Lucy by the Sea, will be published.  

I’m so excited about book club!

I found an article at Bustle:  “50 Books to Read with Your Book Club.”   Let’s see, if we read one book a year for book club, we can’t get though 50 books !  Fifty years from now…  no, it’s not possible.

But you may enjoy looking at the Bustle list.  I’ve read some of these books, but none for book club.

What books have worked well for your book club?  Classics?  Contemporary lit?  Mysteries?  Sci-fi?  Poetry?  I’d love to know.

Americans Will Need a Glossary: Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker”

Even before I finished Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, which is longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, I predicted that the critics would have called it a fable.  Any short experimental novel, and in this case fantastical as well, is referred to as a fable.  

Garner’s use of language in this odd little fable is sometimes perplexing.  Since I had no context for the oft-repeated words  “ragbone” and “donkey stone,” I thought Alan Garner, the brilliant children’s writer, was writing a post-apocalyptic fable.  “Is he thinking of Ridley Walker?”  I asked myself, because  Treacle Walker is the name of one of the main characters.

“Ragbone!  Ragbone!  Any rags!  Pots for rags!  Donkey stone!” This is the recurring cry of Treacle Walker as he drives his pony cart from place to place. I was repulsed by the idea of “ragbone,” until I looked it up online and learned that it refers to the British rag-and-bone man who travels in a cart and buys rags (discarded clothes) and bones (from which glue is made).  And a donkey stone – another word which flummoxed me – turns out to be a scouring stone.

This rather static book has a dream-like atmosphere.  The main character, Joe, a sickly boy with eye problems, lives alone in the chimney of his house.  Why alone and in the chimney I do not know.  (Maybe it is a post-apocalyptic novella after all, though it’s more likely some English fairy tale reference.)  Thrilled by the appearance of the rag-and-bone man, Joe trades an old pair of pajamas and “a lamb’s shoulder blade he had picked from a mole hill by the railway embankment”  for a pretty, almost empty jar the size of his hand, labelled “Poor Man’s Cream,” and a donkey stone.

Both items are magical:  the donkey stone rubbed on the steps keeps intruders out of the house, and the Poor Man’s Cream makes one of Joe’s eyes see what no one else can see:  it confers “glamourie” (the faery glamour).  Strange things happen.  Joe sees a bog man no one else can see.  And the characters in his comic books literally leap off the page and give chase through the mirror.  (I was afraid Joe would get stuck in the mirror.)

Garner’s prose is polished and spare, but let’s hope Treacle Walker comes with a glossary when it is published in the U.S.  As a lifetime Anglophile, I have finally been stumped by British English. The “craven nidget” turns out to be a “craven idiot.”  But what was I to make of the following?  “It was a hurlothrumbo of winter.  A lomperhomock of a night.  Nothing more.” Wikipedia says that Hurlothrumbo; or, The super-natural is an 18th-century English nonsense play by the dancing-master Samuel Johnson of Cheshire, published in 1729. . And I was unable to find “lomperhomock.”  

I would not be surprised if Treacle Walker won the Booker Prize, nor would I object, because I loved Garner’s children’s books.  But this novella seems a bit precious to me. 

Reading in a Heat Wave: Edith Wharton’s “The Mother’s Recompense” & Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”

Edith Wharton

Saturday was the last  hot day.  That’s what  the Weather Channel said.  You’d think we’d accomplish a lot indoors when it’s 100 degrees outdoors – finish writing that novel, learn to play the guitar – but in fact there is a lot of lolling around.

I did, however,  reread two short novels, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense and Jane Austen’s  Persuasion.

I wonder if Edith Wharton is still in fashion.  I don’t see her mentioned much online. The last time I saw an essay on Wharton was in The New Yorker in 2012, by Jonathan Franzen, who is never adverse to being obnoxious.  He said that Edith Wharton wasn’t pretty.  He adds, “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

I was exasperated by this non sequitur.  Actually, I think Wharton  is pretty enough, but what does it matter?  What do Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy have to do with it?  Would anyone have said of Henry James or James Joyce, “He isn’t pretty”? 

Before I go on to The Mother’s Recompense, let me say that my favorite Wharton heroine is Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.  Every time I reread it, I am indignant and distressed over her tragedy, as well as in awe of every elegant word Wharton wrote.  How can charming, intelligent Lily fall not just a few rungs, but right off the social ladder?  Lily is desperate: she believes she should marry a rich man to support her life-style, but bungles her chances because she doesn’t like the available bachelors.  The spell of drugs (laudanum) is her only relief as she falls into debt and deeper unhappiness.  Here’s what we learn from Edith Wharton:  No Prince Charming will save Lily Bart.  People like Lily – but not enough. The mystery of fiction is our identification with characters like Lily from Old New York.

I’ve made my way through most of Wharton’s work, and last week I took The Mothers Recompense (1925) off the shelf, because a writer in one of those short interviews at The Guardian or The New York Times called it an underrated classic.

The fact that I had read The Mother’s Recompense, and didn’t remember it, might have been a portent that I would not rate it highly.  If I were a Roman augur, I would have watched some chickens or examined an animal’s entrails and then announced:  “This is not a good day to read The Mother’s Recompense.”

But even though it is far from Wharton’s best, I was riveted by this slight, tragic novel. Plot-wise, it is a page-turner. The 45-year-old American heroine, Kate Clephane, has lived on the Riviera for years, ever since she ran away from her rich husband in New York with another man from whom she soon parted.  Kate has survived in comfort, living in slightly shabby hotels, and dividing her days into periods of aimless social life, taking long drives with the elderly Mrs. Minty, dining with friends at the casino, attending a Ladies’ Guild meeting at the American church, and buying new hats.  And she often muses about her second lover, Chris, a much younger man who eventually left her, but who was the love of her life.

Kate considers herself permanently severed from her family.  And then her daughter, Anne, sends her a telegram, inviting Kate  to return to New York and live with her.  Kate’s mother-in law, the dragon lady who had forbidden Kate to visit Anne for the last 18 years, has died. 

Kate’s reunion with Anne is touching, and their relationship almost perfect, until Anne announces she is engaged to Chris.  This is a tragedy for Kate, who doesn’t know what  a mother should do in this situation. Should she tell Anne about her own relationship with Chris? Can she scare Chris away from Anne?  Either Kate or Anne will break. 

Wharton is usually a great stylist, but here we simply race through the book, not noticing that it’s less elegant than some of her best work.

A good read, not a great book.

As for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is it not her best novel?  It is less complex than Emma and Mansfield Park, but it is stunning.

These days I read this as a sublime comedy about loneliness and the reinvention of self.  Anne Elliott has lost her bloom:  she is a lonely woman in her late twenties, who some years ago refused  Frederick Wentworth’s proposal of marriage, because her mentor, Lady Russell, said it would be unwise to marry a navy officer with uncertain prospects. Anne has never gotten over the disappointment; she still loves Frederick.  When chance brings Captain Wentworth and Anne together during her visit to her very funny, hypochondriac younger sister, Mary, the two try to avoid each other. But Anne blooms in the admiration of others, and reinvents herself, and there is, of course, romance.

What Next? The Closing of Small-Town Libraries

 One thing the U.S. did right:  in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government funded the renovation of many public libraries. In some cases, they even built new ones.  Drive through any small midwestern town and you’re likely to find a new library or a renovated Carnegie public library.   Take Hawarden, Iowa (population:  2,700), the birthplace of the forgotten writer, Ruth Suckow.  Upon our arrival, we could  not locate Suckow’s house/museum, so we consulted a reference librarian at the strikingly modern public library. The librarian knew whom to call, and our charming guide, a member of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association, knew all about the family history and Suckow’s books.  And I thought:  Hm, I could live here, because it has a good library and refined people!

Blue Earth County Library, Mankato, MN: one of our favorites.

 We have many favorite libraries:  we love Blue Earth County Library in Mankato, MN (population: 44,488), because of its well-stocked bookstore and fantastic summer book sale.  My husband also recommends the public library in Central City, Nebraska (population: 2,934), where he once cooled off during an epic bike ride on a 94-degree day.  (N.B. Central City is  the birthplace of Wright Morris, who won the National Book award for two of his novels.)

But now we find ourselves in the 21st century, facing library censorship issues we never saw coming.  Two small-town public libraries in the midwest have closed this summer (at least temporarily) due to censorship issues, one in Vinton, Iowa (population:  4,938); the other in James Township, Michigan (population: 8,618) was defunded.

The censorship issues focus on LGBTQ+ books, particularly on the subset of  Y.A. LGBTQ books.  I was not aware that this was a special genre, though of course I have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – but I simply call those classics. I am presently reading Our Wives under the Sea, a novel about a lesbian couple, one of whom is traumatized  after a dangerous submarine trip becomes a six-month nightmare.  But does that count as an LGBTQ+ book? I wouldn’t call it that.

As for Y.A. books, I have a contentious, snobbish idea:  stop buying poorly-written crap aimed at teens.  I don’t care if they’re Y.A. autobiographies,  Y.A. feminist fiction, Y.A. science fiction, Y.A. queer books, Y.A. people-of-color books, Y.A. mysteries, Y.A. adventure books, Y.A. romances:  don’t buy them unless you’ve read them and can vouch that they’re well-written!                                 
Some of you may understand my contentiousness.  In the cities, we can fight these censorship battles more efficiently, so long as the education system and public libraries survive (and that is in question these days), because there is greater diversity and a greater number of college-educated people.  But small towns and rural areas seem especially susceptible to Far Right hysteria these days.

Sometimes the lines between literary standards and censorship are blurred. During my childhood, the children’s librarian refused to stock Nancy Drew books.  My mother talked to her about it:  she thought Miss M. might crack if she knew how expensive they were, and how many parents bought them for their daughters.  But Nancy Drew was beneath Miss M.’s standards. And, I admit, it was an excellent library, though I think she was wrong about Nancy Drew.

Nowadays, the Christian far right has a penchant for censorship, and, as with issues like abortion, LGBTQ+  is an easy target.  Let’s hope shutting down the libraries isn’t the censors’ goal, because see how easy it was for them?  I don’t think it’s necessary to close the public library on behalf of a collection of crappy Y.A. books.  If you want to go down fighting, do it for Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and J. D. Salinger.  

Living in Tennies: An End of Summer Reverie

  I live in tennies, as we used to call canvas shoes. I own two pairs:  one is a classic mid-20th-century women’s model, the other a unisex style – a twist on a basketball shoe. The classic model is prettier, but the other is roomier.

Why are they tennies?  Perhaps people did play tennis in canvas shoes at one time.  Nowadays, my beloved tennies are usually referred to as sneakers, and indeed, when I lived on on the east coast, I yielded to common usage (“sneakers”) rather than try to communicate with midwestern “dialect” (“tennies”).

Does the name matter?  My mother loved Keds, the most popular brand, because they were inexpensive and could be washed in the washing machine. At the end of summer she threw ours out, but got several years of use out of hers.

And then there were the fall tennies.  We were required to wear white canvas shoes in gym class.  Mom fumed:  “Why white? They’re hard to clean.”  Yes, why make extra work for Mom? Typical of everything about gym class:  make everyone hate it!

My return to tennies this August has been the hallmark of recovery from My Semi-Invalid Summer, as I refer to it dramatically.  I have already mentioned my so-called sports injury in mid-June.  The cause, ironically, was not a sport, but an intensive yoga class meant to keep one ultra-fit. Unfortunately, it did not work for me:  by the end of the first session, I could barely bend my suddenly-swollen ankles, puffy knees, or weakened wrists.  In order to sit on the floor to do gentle stretching exercises, I have had to kneel on two pillows, then lean on my forearms, then roll onto my back, and pull up my aching legs with my hands. 

“This is how it feels to grow old,” I thought as I struggled to bend my knees enough to sit in the bathtub. 

This yoga class with horrible consequences reminded me of gym classes of yore, when a baleful gym teacher with a whistle round her neck and wincing-white tennis shoes bellowed at us to run faster, to  climb a rope, which I rebelliously declined to try, or to criticize my jumping jacks, which were “all wrong.  You’re jumping too high.”

In general, yoga is a gentler sport. But in this fast-moving yoga class, everything is much accelerated.  You rapidly shift your body from a sphinx pose, or perhaps a cobra, up to a plank, which is a stationary high push-up, and then up to a downward dog, and then again… and again… and again, faster and faster. 

And so, after a month and a half of alternating rest with gentle exercise (my own personally-designed regimen), and constant popping of Advil (you don’t want to go the pain pill route – stick with Advil or Tylenol!),  I am almost back to normal.  That is, if I never miss a gentle exercise session again.

And now I can wear my tennies when I feel like it. I don’t have to wear super-sensible oversized super-supportive walking shoes every time I go out. The tennies are a symbol of youth.  Who knew?  You don’t wear them for long walks, but for joyous short rambles,bike rides, or when you’re out in the garden.

Keep on truckin’, but avoid excessively vigorous exercise.

Reading through Pain: Crime Fiction, a Booker-Longlisted Novel, & Humor


The planet is so hot, it’s hard to imagine its getting hotter.   It was 100 degrees today, and it feels blazing, impossible.  
But in addition to suffering the heat, I’ve  been in a lot of pain this summer.  I  injured myself during a power yoga session.  Remember aerobic dance classes?  This was similar, only with yoga moves. I felt my ribcage rattling at one point.  For over a month, my ankles were swollen, and I could hardly bend my knees or  wrists.
I am now the queen of modified calisthenics:  leg stretches and gentle weight-lifting. Some days I managed to walk a mile (in pain), other days I could barely make it around the block.  One day I considered crawling home, but my knees weren’t bending properly.
I am almost 100 percent, but I couldn’t have gotten through it without Advil, calcium pills, gentle workouts, and some great books.

CRIME FICTION:  The greatest American fiction being written today is crime fiction. (I’m not the first to say this.)  And Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawki series,  is the best American writer working today, says I.  
Her savvy, tough P.I. is V.I. Warshawski, a native Chicagoan and a cop’s daughter who became a lawyer and then opened her own P.I. office.  In Paretsky’s latest novel,  Overboard, V.I.’s  dogs run away from her on a walk along Lake Michigan and find an injured girl in a cave. The girl is taken to a hospital, and the case is turned over to the police, but it keeps coming back to haunt V.I.  The police thinks she’s holding out on them.  Really great writing, and if you know Chicago, or even if you don’t, her precise, deft prose will vividly recreate it.                       

BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE:  I reread Elizabeth Strout’s stunning novel, Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker.  Her sentences are so graceful that they give a new meaning to the word “grace.”  Yet her characters have lived through a  lot of pain, and her lyrical sentences balance that in a way, not to make it palatable, but so that we can see their complexity more clearly.

Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lucy’s ex-husband William’s second wife and their daughter have left him, and he  invites Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to investigate his mother’s past.  He has just learned that before his mother left her first husband, a farmer, to marry William’s father, a German P.O.W., she had had a baby daughter. He never knew he had a sister. Can anything good come out of such a trip?  It’s not a Hallmark movie.   
Do read this because Lucy is good company.

 HUMOR WRITING:  I had read very few of P.G. Wodehouse‘s standalone novels, until I found a “Best of” list by Robert McCrum, one of Wodehouse’s biographers.  Piccadilly Jim is hilarious.   There are the usual imposters –  Jim, a practical joker  always in the society columns, changes his name so he can have a chance with a beautiful, bright American girl who scorns the antics of Piccadilly Jim. Imagine his surprise when he meets her family’s new butler – and it is his father, who has fled his wife in England because he couldn’t  bear to miss another baseball season.  I kept tipping back my head and laughing.  I don’t remember ever tipping my head before – that shows how funny Wodehouse is, I guess!

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