A Bookish Trip to London: Pack Your Suitcase with Literary Associations!

Recently I spent a few days in London. I climbed countless stairs at countless museums, scrutinized Angela Carter’s manuscript of The Bloody Chamber, and rested in a pew in a small lovely 18th-century church.

London is a literary city.  We anglophiles can’t stop thinking about books.  When we pass the British Museum, we think of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, in which the practical, astute Catherine Oliphant, a writer of women’s magazine stories who lives near the British Museum, takes a break to watch the eccentric anthropologists across the street swarming to their new anthropological research centre.  (Catherine’s boyfriend is an anthropologist.)

Naturally, we bookish types aren’t always thinking about books,  but we visit as many bookstores as possible.

I bought fewer books than last time and was relatively frugal.

At Any Amount of Books, a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, I was thrilled to find Angus Wilson’s weirdly absorbing 1961 novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, which takes us from bickering zoo administrators to an apocalypse in Europe.  The narrator, Simon Carter, the new secretary of the London Zoo,  tries to mitigate the quarrels behind the scenes as chaos descends.   The zoologists’ scuffles  parallel the politicians’ clumsy maneuvers as the world moves closer to a war.  Can the animals survive when every zoologist has a different scheme or theory (open park or nostalgic Victorian?)? And can  humans survive the politicians’ inability to communicate or negotiate?

Wilson writes this brief note in the beginning:

The events described here in 1970-3 are utterly improbable. Our future is probably brighter, probably much more gloomy.  All references to the London Zoo and to its staff are entirely imaginary.

I also visited The London Review Bookstore, an attractive shop in Bloomsbury which is owned by The London Review of Books.  (The LRB also has a cake shop next door.)

I browsed in the  poetry section and, since poetry books  make good gifts, I purchased Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, an  anthology of more than 250 of Brandreth’s favorite poems which he urges us “to read, to enjoy, and to learn by heart.”  Although you may have read many of the poems, I loved rereading Edward Lear, Donne, and some of Shakespeare’s famous speeches.  And I enjoy Brandreth’s tips for memorizing poems–not that I intend to do so.  Still, just two lines a day, he says. We can do it!  It will improve our memory and concentrations.

I also bought The Poems of Dorothy Molloy, an Irish poet unknown to me. I admire her wit and disturbing take on domesticity and love.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PACK THE EXTRA BOOKS?  Although packing books is challenging,  you will be surprised what a determined person can fit in a suitcase.  (Hardcovers on the bottom, paperbacks in the pouches.)   And wheeling the heavy suitcase develops upper-arm strength.  If we worked in bookstores, we wouldn’t need to work out at the gym.

What are your favorite London bookstores?  And do you visit bookstores in other cities?

Reading on the Plane: Where to Park Your Books

The demise of the Elizabeth Bowen during travel.

On a recent plane trip, I could not keep track of my books. I had stuffed two paperbacks into a carry-on bag:  Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends and Relations and a mystery.  One of the other would keep me occupied on the trip, I thought.

The bag was a tight fit under the seat.  I had to crouch in the aisle to drag it out.  With much flexing of knees, I managed this triumphantly.  The Elizabeth Bowen, however, was not in a zippered compartment marked BOOKS. It was with meds, toiletries, and a cardigan sweater.  

Once the book was out of the bag, it was out for the rest of the trip. Usually there is an empty seat next to me, and I fling the book down when I don’t want to read.  This time the plane was full.  And during the multiple meals and snacks that keep us from going crazy on planes, the old paperback became more and more brittle. I tried holding it on my knees under the tray. It emerged bent.  During a later snack, I stuffed it into the pocket on the back of the chair.  A corner of the cover tore off.

Turned out this book was no longer meant for reading.  The type was dim against the tan, crackling pages. I alternately had to hold it close to my face or at arm’s length. That’s the beauty of bifocals:  you are both near-sighted and short-sighted at the same time. 

I finally read my mystery, which was perfect for the plane.  I can’t recommend Patricia Moyes’s The Curious Affair of the Third Dog too strongly.  I  am so thankful I didn’t bring Proust, which I had originally considered the ultimate vacation reading.  (Not on this plane.)

The Bowen fell apart completely the next day in a cafe.

Anyone have good travel tips for plane reading (and for keeping books in one piece)?    I’m thinking about buying a tablet case, which would give the books some extra protection.  And it would fit in my bag.

I returned home with some new sturdy paperbacks.  They were unharmed by travel.

Would a tablet case do the trick?

On the Road,on a Social Media Fast

I was on the road.

Kind of like Jack Kerouac.

Except I had maps and guidebooks. Everything on the trip was carefully planned, except reality. And I was on a social media and e-book fast for a week.

I did not miss electronic devices. I was pleased to skip photo ops at crazily huge gloomy castles and beautiful parks. I tried to look at what was in front of me. I’m not used to it.

At night, I read my book.  But during the day I saw even more people on their phones than usual.  No reading.  Lots of selfies  I ran into a woman’s selfie stick.  Now that’s a little mad.

Not that I’m a Luddite.  And I don’t mean to sound preachy.  But I started thinking about selfies, e-devices, and the fate of the book.

A few years ago, in the canceled TV show “Selfie, ” Eliza and Henry, near the end of an electronics-free weekend at their boss’s house, find high ground with a phone signal and are immediately relaxed, hunched over their phones.

The characters have modern-day equivalents.  Eliza has millions of followers on YouTube but can’t relate to anyone in the real world. Henry, her colleague, has good manners, though he is awkward, and scandalized by her behavior, tutors her in how to behave outside the imaginary worlds of Twitter and Yelp. When Henry learns that Eliza eats lunch standing over a garbage can because no one in high school would sit with her, he buys a special wastebasket for her and they eat lunch in his office standing over their respective wastebaskets. (Yes, “Selfie” is a modern “Pygmalion.”)

However, we are so tuned into e-stuff these days that perhaps we can no longer laugh at “Selfie.” It was both silly and poignant for the few months before the network canceled it.  Anyway, I was apprehensive about reading my book at a cafe last week when everyone else is on the phone. Perhaps reading a book is now the equivalent of eating lunch standing over a garbage can. Certainly I made haste to stuff my book into my bag when I saw there were no books in the cafe.

And then this happened. The cover of my old paperback fell off. Yup, I had to buy a book or three to replace it.

More on this later.

The Joy of Rereading Dickens’s “Little Dorrit”

I was drinking a soy latte at A La Caffeine, the chic coffeehouse for itinerant readers.  And I was lost in the pages of Dickens’s Little Dorrit when one of the regulars dimpled at me, reminding me of Pet Meagles, the kind young woman with whom the hero of this dark novel is infatuated.

“I wish I had a Dickens novel to look forward to,” the regular said, adding she had read several of his books.

“You can always reread your favorites, you know.”

“Oh, I don’t like to waste my time rereading.”

I gasped with dismay, but have recently adopted a laid-back retro-‘70s attitude which precludes my jousting verbally with strangers or comparing my generation to the Millennials.  Needless to say, I think rereading is one of the best ways to know an author.  And who offers more on a second reading than  Dickens, that most elegant, witty, and outrageously satiric of Victorian novelists?

That said, Little Dorrit may not be my favorite, but it is one of Dickens’s more serious novels, a dark fairy tale about prisons and freedom.  Every character is imprisoned in some manner, whether in actual prison, by government bureaucracy, greed, or money or lack thereof. The diminutive heroine, Amy Dorrit, also known as Little Dorrit, has lived for 20 years in the Marshalsea prison with her family, because her father lost all his money and could not repay the debts.  

Amy’s sheer determination and work ethic have pushed her siblings out of the prison nest to find work: her older sister is a professional dancer, trained by a dancer who was briefly at the Marshalsea; and their  unreliable bother Tip works at odd jobs from which he is inevitably fired.  Amy herself is a seamstress:  her life changes when Mrs. Clennam, a harsh businesswoman who is imprisoned in a wheelchair, takes an interest in her and hires her to do sewing.  Mrs. Clennam’s motives, alas, are not altruistic.

An illustration of Amy, Arthur, and Maggy by “Phiz.”

The Clennam family is one of the unhappiest of all of Dickens’s unhappy families. Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur, who has recently returned from China,  is gloomy, quiet, decent, and altruistic, but deeply unhappy at 40.  He is mentally imprisoned by depression, partly because of his mother’s severity, which is born of religion, a great secret, and crooked business practices.  He also is horrified by Flintwich, her servant and partner in crime, who lives in Mrs. Clennam’s house with his terrified wife, Affery.  In this  gloomy house, Little Dorrit is the only light.  Arthur considers Amy a child, though he is paradoxically in love with Pet Meagles, who, like Amy, is 20.  It doesn’t occur to him that Amy loves him.

Dickens’s humor is muted here, but there are many eccentric, endearing characters.  Maggy, a 28-year-old woman who is “intellectually disabled” (what used to be called”mentally retarded”), refers to Amy as “Little Mother” and exclaims that she is ten years old. Then there is  Tattycoram,  Pet’s moody, angry maid, who is indignant that Pet has all the love and advantages and she has none.  She is lured away by Miss Wade, another angry person who believes that others condescend to her.

My favorite character is Flora Finching, Arthur’s former fiancée, now the middle-aged widow of  “Mr. F.” (Arthur’s mother broke up the match.)  Arthur regards Flora as  old and fat now, and is repulsed by her flirting.  (That’s middle age, Arthur!  Too bad!) I  adore Flora’s jumbled comic monologues, which surely inspired James Joyce’s monologues.

‘Dear dear,’ said Flora, ‘only to think of the changes at home Arthur—cannot overcome it, and seems so natural, Mr Clennam far more proper—since you became familiar with the Chinese customs and language which I am persuaded you speak like a Native if not better for you were always quick and clever though immensely difficult no doubt, I am sure the tea chests alone would kill me if I tried, such changes Arthur—I am doing it again, seems so natural, most improper—as no one could have believed, who could have ever imagined Mrs Finching when I can’t imagine it myself!'”

I enjoyed Little Dorrit thoroughly.  The only problem is that I prefer not to notice common tropes–it interferes with my common reading–and of course one does notice.  Dickens’s novels are full of inheritances, ruin by speculation, orphans, altruists, dark Gothic secrets, grotesques, and marriage plots. 

One can’t help but compare the sweet, helpful Amy Dorrit with Esther Summerson (Bleak House), the furious jilted Miss Wade with the furious Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Flora Finching with young silly Dora (David Copperfield)…and so it goes on.

What a great book!  I’ll read it again in five or ten years. And I’ll enjoy it.

Did You Ever Cut Your Hair? Haircuts in Life and Literature

Shelley Duvall in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”

“I’m not doing that anymore,” I said fiercely. “All that money for this!”

If you’re a woman, you’ll intuit my meaning.  Of course I’m talking about hair.  Last winter, a stylist gave me a bad haircut, which is difficult to do, since I’m a wash-and-go gal.  

Was it the worst haircut I’ve had?  That would be hard to say.  It was bad.  Very bad. But I remember years ago after cutting my beautiful long hair for the first time, I sobbed and went from salon to salon trying to get it fixed.  My mother had warned me not to cut it.  She said it would never grow back the same. I should have “let my freak flag fly,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young advised in their song, “Almost Cut My Hair.”  Even my mother thought so.

There has been crying and devastation in the past. In my twenties, I emerged from a salon with a hairdo that managed to be both poufy and ragged. It was a cross between country and punk, i.e., Loretta Lynn and Joan Jett, and not an ideal look for bicyclists.  I arrived everywhere with feral hair that grew wilder as I pedaled. I carried a hairbrush in my bike kit and tried to tame my hair before I entered buildings inhabited by humans.  I looked forward to bedhead, because it smooshed my hair down.  What I noticed:  most people have normal hair.  I certainly wish I did.

Here’s how to survive a bad haircut.  Wear hairpins and barrettes to tame it.  Wait for it to grow out.  But this recent bad haircut had magical properties. It just wouldn’t stop growing along the same bad lines.  It got worse and more unruly

A couple of months ago, I finally cut it myself, with the blunt scissors we use for opening packages. 

It  lay down flat on my head. “You mean it could have looked like this all the time?” 

But then it started to grow. And guess what?  It, too, was unmanageable.  I had to snip off sections of hair every couple of days.  I obviously do not know how to cut hair.

In August, I finally got a good professional haircut. I am so relieved.  

In literature women have complicated experiences with their hair, too.  Here are some examples.

1 . “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Bernice gets attention by boasting that she’ll have her hair bobbed, and then loses all attraction for men.  Poor Bernice!

2.  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.  The heroine, Maggie, cuts her own hair as a child after her mother and aunt talk about how unruly it is.  And she gets into a lot of trouble.

3.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  In one chapter,  Jo sells her hair, her “one beauty!”—to pay for her mother’s train ticket to Washington, D.C., after they received a telegram informing them that Father is ill in a military hospital in Washington, D.C.   (He is a Chaplain in the Civil War.) In another chapter, Jo accidentally burns off her sister Meg’s bangs with hair tongs before they attend a dance.

4.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Anna gets ill and all her beautiful hair has to be cut.  What is it about haircuts and illness in the 19th century?

5. The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing.  At the end of a summer away from her husband and children, Kate comes to term with aging and stops buying into the consumer culture.  She resolves to stop cutting her hair and wear it in a bun,  but compromises by continuing to wear “nice” clothes so as to fit in with her family.  Her hair is just for her.

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A BAD HAIRCUT?  AND WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BAD “HAIR-DO” EPISODES IN LITERATURE?

A Brilliant Novel: Elizabeth Berridge’s “Upon Several Occasions”

The writer Elizabeth Berridge (1919-2009) is little-known in the U.S.  If Persephone not published a collection of her short stories, Tell It to a Stranger, I would never have heard of her. I have thoroughly enjoyed her novels, too, and am especially fond of Upon Several Occasions, published in 1953 and reissued as a Faber Finds paperback in 2009.  I loved this so much I wanted to go back and start over as soon as I finished it.

This mesmerizing novel begins with elements of coziness that may mislead the readers into thinking this is Barbara Pym territory.  The village setting delights us:  we Americans imagine  knitting, cats, cocoa, and faithful church attendance. And there is much of this.  In the first chapter, the tactful rector’s wife, Mrs. Peters, secretary of the Women’s League, coaxes its reticent members to decide on a destination for their annual outing. They finally choose Bristow, and since Mrs. Peters knew  this would be the choice, she is relieved when the meeting ends and they bring out the card tables and tea.

upon berridgeBut the reader’s preconceptions of cozy village life are broken by Mrs. Peters’s disillusionment.  She knows the village too well:  she foresees that the fierce  rivalry between her husband and Mr. Merrion, the chapel minister, will end in Mr. Merrion’s organizing a rival Youth Club trip to Bristow.  (He does.)  But Mrs. Peters is not cynical: she is irritated because she is grieving for a son who died in Burma, and her years in the village seem empty without him.  

The clarity of Berridge’s understated prose, her quiet but precise descriptions, vivid characters, and sharp dialogue make this novel a near-classic.  In just a few paragraphs, she touchingly reveals the nature of Mrs. Peters’s tragedy.  When she tells her husband about the trip to Bristow, he says,

“Bristow, eh?  We haven’t been there for–let me see…”

“Just after Noddy was born,” his wife said, with a woman’s accuracy for nostalgic dates.  “Twenty-five years ago.”

Involuntarily she looked up at the portrait of their son, smiling down from the mantelpiece, but she did not feel the familiar contraction behind the eyes, no tears came.  How, as a clergyman’s wife, could she comfort the bereaved if she gained no help from the Christian comfort the Church gave?  She was resigned, not joyfully–that was too much to ask from a mother–to the death of her son in Burma.

elizabethberridge
Elizabeth Berridge

Mrs. Peters in a way holds the reins, but we also get to know two working-class families. On the trip to Bristow, Berridge reveals the characters in depth.   The sweet but long-suffering Mrs. Barnard has arranged to see an old school friend in Bristow: she  is thrilled to have time off from her difficult unmarried daughter, Mady, who is over thirty and lives with her.  Mady is quite a storyteller, or a pathological liar, depending on your point-of-view:  she uses her time in Bristow to pick up two men, giving different names to each and telling tall tales about her life.  She is astonished when one of them sees through her, laughs at her, and arranges to meet her again.  She is not used to such success.

Meanwhile, Doris Weldon, the snappish mother of three children and wife of a workaholic forester, rediscovers the joys of a day out.  Her youngest child has a babysitter, and the two oldest are in Bristow with the Methodist Youth Club. Her only regret is that her husband wouldn’t take the day off and accompany her.  But she is ready to embrace her family at the end of a mellow day.  Which, alas, does not end as she’d hoped. 

The end of the trip brings us back to real life.  There are celebrations and tragedies.  Upon Several Occasions  is a quiet book, but I was riveted by Berridge’s sketches of women’s lives during a hot dry summer, a harvest festival, a wedding, and a flood.

What Historical Novel Should I Read? and Musings on Obsolete Slang

There were three pokes before the phlebotomist could draw blood, but he/she left no bruises, which indicated a degree of professional competence.  Bemused, weary, and bandaged, I biked home and decided to escape into pop fiction.  Will I find refuge in a historical novel?

Here is the stack of books I am considering.

1 . The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart.  I enjoyed The Crystal Cave, the first of the Merlin trilogy, and though I prefer Stewart’s charming Gothics, her writing is on a higher level here.  The trilogy is categorized as  fantasy, but they are  really historical novels about mythic characters.  As always, Stewart meticulously researches the background, and the details about political conflicts and Merlin’s  protecting Arthur are fascinating.  I hope The Hollow Hills is as good.

2.  Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.  Everyone recommends this six-book series about a Scottish soldier. Is it time for me to read it?   (See an entertaining essay in The Guardian.)

3.  Hilary Bailey’s Cassandra, Princess of Troy.  I can’t remember who recommended this, but Bailey is an excellent writer.  Here is an excerpt from the Bloomsbury Reader description:  “Hilary Bailey re-invents the history of the Trojan Wars and tells a new story of Cassandra. Legend has it that Cassandra died at the hand of Clytemnestra, but in this novel she escapes to a farm in Thessaly, and writes her own account of the fall of Troy.”

4.  John Cowper Powys’s Porius. I read several of Powys’s novels after reading this essay by Margaret Drabble in The Guardian, but Porius, a 751-page novel set in the year 499,  may defeat me because of the tiny print.

The New Yorker said in 2007: “This immense, robustly imagined novel was whittled down by more than five hundred pages when it was first published, in 1951. Powys’s original conception is here restored, a dense, complex merging of modern psychology and ancient mythology. In Wales in the year 499, the ruling Celts learn that the Saxons and the forest people are advancing against them; Porius, the son of the Celt prince, awaits the coming battle while ruminating on the eternal conflicts between male and female, nature and humankind, pagan and Christian.”

5.  Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy:  Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games.  I read Fire from Heaven after the TLS published the introduction to the Folio Society edition of the trilogy.    I have two to go.  From the Goodreads book description:  “This is Mary Renault’s masterly evocation of ancient Greece and Alexander the conqueror, beautiful, beloved – and flawed. ”

WHERE DOES THE SLANG GO?

My mother used the following slang expressions. Were they dialect,  I wonder? Or were they American idioms?  They are long obsolete.

crooked as a dog’s hind leg, as in “Your part is crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”  (This was said to me often.)

fussbudget – someone fussy

slow as molasses 

cute as a bug

oopsy daisy!

old as Methuselah

Darn!  (instead of damn)

too old for you (Mom said this mostly of clothes)

quick as a wink

don’t count your chickens… [before they’re hatched]

tickled pink – happy, amused, and surprised

happy as a clam 

Sleep tight!

THERE ARE MORE, BUT I CAN’T REMEMBER THEM.  That’s the trouble with disused slang.