Famous People We Don’t Know

 

 

When a friend or acquaintance gets  famous, or even sort of famous, we are delighted. Absurdly we feel connected to them.  Not that we don’t love living in the low-key midwest, but few celebrities come through, except touring rock stars like Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney. And we don’t know them.

We are incurably bookish.  I grew up  in Iowa City, now a UNESCO City of Books, and attended the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For years I was a journalist, and interviewed dozens of famous writers, among them Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Karen Joy Fowler, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert Hellenga, Peter Stothard, Karen E. Bender, and Michelle Hunevan.

John Leggett

Over Thanksgiving dinner, we invented a game whose goal was to rattle off our famous “friends” who once lived in Iowa, or even visited here.  My cousin claimed she’d partied with Ashton Kutcher at the University of Iowa (possible) and had sex with Keith Richards in Des Moines (certainly a lie!); my husband took a writing class from John Leggett, who was reputed to be a mean bastard  (I don’t know why my talented husband gave up writing); I also claimed Leggett because I lived around the block from him (and the noise from his parties kept me up all night); we absurdly claimed Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who got her Ph.D.  from the University of Iowa and taught for years at Iowa State, because we’ve attended two of her readings; and I took a writing class from T.C. Boyle when he was a T.A. (Do read his hilarious Iowa City short story, “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the hero desperately wants to break into a Grace and Rubies, an actual women’s restaurant/club I belonged to in the ’70s!)

“Don’t you know anyone who isn’t a writer?” someone asked.

“Greg Brown?” we hazarded.

Yes, we have all heard the musician Greg Brown at the Mill or on Prairie Home Companion.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre

But then I had a flash! Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre! This brilliant comedy group, founded by five University of Iowa students in 1975, is famous. Their performances and radio sketches were broadcast on NPR, and they had finale show a couple of years ago . All right, I don’t “know” them, but Leon Martell  was the T.A. for my Drama in Western Culture class. I  do vaguely remember him perched on a desk in our discussion group.  And was there another T.A., Jan, who founded the Haunted Bookshop, or was that the second semester?  And  I think Leon may have directed the college production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or perhaps he played Oberon. And were the fairies on swings?

The Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre skits are hilarious:  I love their performance of “When I Get Rich” and “More Than a Box.” And you can watch their finale performance in San Francisco online.   Actually, there seems to be a lot online.

WHAT FAMOUS PEOPLE DO AND DON’T YOU KNOW?

 

 

Dickens’s Dark Side in “Martin Chuzzlewit”

It is easy to lose oneself in Dickens’s baroque prose and enchanting, lightning-past plots.  He is one of my favorite Victorians, just behind Charlotte and Emily Bronte; Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite novelsAnd yet I complained bitterly this month while reading Dickens’s picaresque novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.  This weird, asymmetrical novel proceeds haphazardly and  plotlessly, until it finally comes together in a sentimental, fantastical ending.

The loose plot centers on the separation of old, rich, cantankerous Martin Chuzzlewit from his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit, after a quarrel about the young man’s determination to marry Mary Graham, old Martin’s companion. The youthful Martin ends up traveling to America to make money and almost dies  in a swampy settlement called Eden, saved by Mark Tapley, a working-class Englishman who wants to prove he can be” jolly” under any circumstances.  (He does.) Meanwhile, old Martin falls under the thrall of a creep named Mr. Pecksniff.

It is undoubtedly the villains who drive this  book. I  could not tell you who the hero  is, or if there is a hero.  But it will be a long, long time before I forget Mr. Pecksniff and Jonah Chuzzlewit.  I wish I could!

The sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, a fraudulent architect, hypocritical churchgoer, and windbag of an orator, swindles, plagiarises, and schemes to acquire money, including the fortune of old Martin Chuzzlewit.  And Jonah Chuzzlwit, who courts both of Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, and abuses Merry Pecksniff after he marries her, is willing to commit murder if it will advance his financial dreams.

Mr. Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit, illustration by Fred Barnard

Eventually good prevails, and evil is punished. The dead even come back to life. (I’m not making this up.) But even though there is a happy ending, it does not end altogether happily for Tom Pinch, one of my favorite minor characters.  Even the good can live in darkness in Dickens.

Dickens sketches Tom as a kind, merry, and moral character who does good deeds and will never get what he wants—and yet must feign happiness.

Mary Graham tells Tom Pinch of Mr. Pecksniff’s harassment of her.((llustration by Fred Barnard)

Tom is the one loyal apprentice of pseudo-architect Mr. Pecksniff.  Tom thinks the best of everyone.  And as, one by one, the other apprentices discover Mr. Pecksniff’s true character and are driven from his employment, Tom tries to persuade them that they are mistaken. Martin, who has briefly been an apprentice, underestimates Tom, whom he thinks simple.  Fortunately, others esteem Tom highly despite his credulousness. It  is only after Martin’s departure that Dickens reveals Tom’s true depth.

Tom is not a sentimental Dickensian stick figure, though it may seem that way at first.  We learn he is musical and transported through music. He is enraptured when he plays the organ at church, and when Mary Graham, who is staying with her employer Martin at a nearby inn, comes into the church for solace and listens to his practicing, he begins to play music she especially enjoys.  It is his way of courtship/worship.

Tom even saves Mary from Mr. Pecksniff, after she confides that he has tried to bully her into marrying him.  Mind you, Mary is grateful to Tom and loves him as a friend, but it never occurs to her to think of him as a lover.  Martin is handsome and Tom plain, so there is no rivalry. But actually, Mary has a very small role in the book, so we know very little of her.  She IS one of the stick figures in the book.

At the happy ending, characters marry left and right, but Tom stays single.  He finally has a good job as a librarian, but his fate is to live with his sister Ruth and her new husband, and to be a happy uncle.  Dickens’ final portrait of Tom–the last few pages are about Tom–disturbed me.  Yes, the writing is sentimental, but Dickens doesn’t spare us the reality of the life of a man who lives through others.  Dickens writes,

And that mild figure seated at an organ, who is he! Ah Tom, dear Tom, old friend!

Thy head is prematurely grey, though Time has passed thee and our old association, Tom. But, in those sounds with which it is thy wont to bear the twilight company, the music of thy heart speaks out—the story of thy life relates itself.

Thy life is tranquil, calm, and happy, Tom. In the soft strain which ever and again comes stealing back upon the ear, the memory of thine old love may find a voice perhaps; but it is a pleasant, softened, whispering memory, like that in which we sometimes hold the dead, and does not pain or grieve thee, God be thanked.

There are a few more pages of this.   Tranquil?  Happy?  Maybe.  Dickens goes overboard.  He is not this mawkish in his later books.

I am haunted by Tom!  I cannot think this a happy ending.  I can’t think Dickens does.

Dickens can be very dark, but maybe I’m reading things into this  because it is NOT one of his best books and I am floored by this ending.

Watch Your Back! Online Return Rip-offs

I’ve had good luck  buying books online from Amazon, Abebooks, Barnes and Noble, and Alibris.  Amazon has remarkable service and the best selection of books.

So what do you do when the Returns department rips you off?

I don’t think I’ve ever returned books before–if I did, the service was prompt, meticulous, and honest.  But recently I returned some books.  In one case, the paper quality was  poor.  And the return forms indicated that I would receive  a FULL refund, minus a few dollars for shipping.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered.

So today I looked over the refund emails and was horrified to learn I had received:

$7.05 for a $23.29 boxed set of mass market paperbacks.

$4.62 for an $18.95 Everyman’s Library copy of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge.

Ye gods!  This wasn’t Half Price Books.  Why was the Returns department ripping me off?

I told the customer service rep I would like  the books sent back to me if I couldn’t have the refund. She explained an item had been marked “damaged.”  Does removing the cellophane from a boxed set count as “damage”?  And what was wrong with the Dickens book?  She  gave me the refund.

Watch your back!  It’s Christmas time, ho ho ho!

The “Alternative” Black Friday & Best Books of Year Lists

Even if you watch only one TV show–say, The Good Place or Mom-the Black Friday commercials are discombobulating.  They drum it into you that deals are the point of Thanksgiving, and Black Friday now begins on Thursday.

The shopping ritual dismays me, and a dark cloud descends till I turn off the TV, though I see the appeal of leaving the guests if things aren’t going well, or doing a female-bonding thing by announcing,  “Let’s go shopping!” Still, I suggest that everybody take a walk instead.

The Bookworm, Omaha

Kerri Jarema at Bustle reminds us that there’s an alternative shopping day, Small Business Saturday.  She says, “…and for readers, this year’s indie bookstore line-up of events will have you more excited than ever to stack your shelves with new reads.”

She even mentions The Bookworm, where I sometimes shop. She writes, “Stores like The Bookworm in Omaha will be having special readings and signings, along with the chance to win a freebie tote bag and enter a raffle for a $50 gift card.”  And if you’re in Omaha, be sure to go to Jackson Street Booksellers, though I doubt the hipsters at that used bookstore have ever heard of Small Business Saturday.

Kudos to Jarema, because few New York writers mention the Midwest!

BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS.

The Best Books of the Year lists are published earlier and earlier.  It’s annoying, but it’s a shopping ritual thing.  And I do enjoy perusing the lists, so here are a few links.

1. The New York Times 100 Notable Books.  They call them “notable” rather than “best,” which is wise. I have read five and a half on the fiction list, which is pretty good for me.  I liked two of them: Joan Silber’s Improvement, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, a collection of linked stories about a group of New Yorkers, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Recreation. a satiric novel about a woman who decides to sleep for a year.

The others I’ve read were just okay:  Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning The Friend, basically an essay about the  narrator’s  best friend, a professor who seems to have died because he could no longer sleep with his students, and the Great Dane he leaves her;  Lionel Shriver’s Property, a collection of two novellas and some short stories (a couple of these are gems, the others so-so); Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, a metoo novel; and Rebecca Makkai’s well-researched historical novel about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, The Great Believers.

2.  The TLS Books of the Year.  Intellectuals recommend the best  books of 2018. They seem a little stuffy this year. Thank God for Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey, who got a laugh over Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RecreationThe new Penguin translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days is also my kind of thing, but I don’t remember who recommended it.

3 . The Washington Post Best Books of 2018.  I haven’t read any of the top 10 and couldn’t access the rest!

4.  Barnes and Noble Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018.  The B&N SF blog is very good.

If  you know of any other lists do tell me!

An Alice Thomas Ellis Revival: Rereading “The 27th Kingdom”

I am planning an Alice Thomas Ellis revival this holiday. This means I will prominently hold one of her novels whenever I walk in front of the football game.  Since I am known as a reader—and some people annoyingly introduce me as “She-reads-a-lot”—I may mention Ellis over dessert.

Ellis’s extraordinary novel The 27th Kingdom was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982.  Set in Chelsea in 1954, this witty, whimsical novel opens with the bohemian heroine, Aunt Irene (pronounced Irina and known by all as “Aunt Irene”), reading a letter from her sister, the Mother Superior of a convent.  She wants Irene to take in a postulant who doesn’t quite fit in with the nuns.

I must say I chortled as I read Irene’s reaction to her sister.

She read her letter again, and because it made her cross she ate another piece of toast, reflecting that it was always one’s family who annoyed one most and made one fat. Simply that her sister was now called “Reverend Mother” made Aunt Irene cross and inclined to put too much butter on her toast.

Every line is imbued with Ellis’s wit and brilliant insights. Her characters are often uncomfortably flawed, but accepted by Aunt Irene.  When Aunt Irene asks her beautiful but vicious nephew, Kyril,  to read the letter, he can’t be bothered.  He carelessly tells her to say No if she doesn’t want the girl, but  Aunt Irene, a Roman Catholic, has a sense of duty.  And she is exasperated with Kyril, whom she  knows she has indulged to the point of provocation and danger, but she loves his beauty too much to deny him anything.

A heterogeneous group of characters surround Aunt Irene.  There is Mrs. Mason, the spiteful cleaning woman who is the wife of an abusive alcoholic; shrewd, savvy working-class Mrs. O’Connor and her son Victor, who deals shadily in beautiful objects whose provenance is doubtful; and Mr. Sirocco, the mousy lodger who simply won’t leave. He is one of Kyril’s friends, perhaps a former lover.

Then the magical Valentine, who has disturbed the Mother Superior, arrives.  She is a fascinating  character, gorgeous, black, mysterious, and from a faraway island. She  has magic abilities, and  Aunt Irene wants to “touch her like a talisman.”  What upset the Mother Superior–Valentine’s talent for miracles- is a saving grace in Chelsea.   Valentine in part symbolizes the conflict between the Roman Catholic tradition of miracles and the new realism and drabness of faith in the 20th century.   (This is one of Ellis’s concerns in her essays.)

There is also a mystery.  The tax collector is after Aunt Irene and she gets phone calls from a heavy breather.  There is a sense of danger throughout the novel.

This strange book is entertaining and enigmatic, with elements of magic realism.  If I knew more Catholic church history, I would doubtless appreciate it more.  She is one of the best English writers of the 20th century, yet most of her books are out-of-print.  She deserves a revival.

A Month of Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”

For over a month now, I have been lugging Martin Chuzzlewit around in my  bag. That’s me, sitting in the theater lobby reading Dickens and wondering if Marnie will ever end. (It’s the Met Live in HD at a local theater.) But to be honest, it’s a roll of the dice which bores me more, Martin Chuzzlewit or Marnie.

I am a great fan of Dickens, and I adored rereading  Bleak House this fall.  But instead of reading Martin Chuzzlewit straight through, I keep setting it aside for other books. As a result I have read a lot of light fiction this month, including E. M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are, an undistinguished novel about a disenchanted housewife, and Kate Carlisle’s bibliophile mystery, Once upon a Spine (don’t bother!).  Not that I didn’t enjoy these books, but talk about mediocre!

On Oct. 28 I wrote in my journal:

Am making progress in Martin Chuzzlewit. Love the Pecksniffs! They’re so horrible, but really funny. Martin’s adventures in America, however, are dull, though he does get scammed and buys land in Eden, which turns out to be a swamp. Wow, the American values ARE SO BAD. I did know Dickens hated his tour of America. I didn’t remember Martin as so unlikable, but the Chuzzlewits and their relatives the Pecksniffs are all NO GOOD in different ways.

And since Oct. 28…nothing!

I have so many complaints about this excellently-written, weird book. First, the heft of it! The edition I’m reading: 839 pages. Not as long as Bleak House, but it seems longer. And I have to wrestle it it out of my handbag before I can get to my money, brush, memo pad, British Library pen, or trail mix. So whether I am at Dillard’s or Walmart, it is a huge production. “What a big book!” people say in a sprightly way.

(I silently raise my eyebrows.)

Perhaps Martin Chuzzlewit was unpopular in its day (and none too pop now) for a reason. There is no real plot, and the character sketeches don’t really hang together. The good characters are much less interesting than the wicked.  I can take the Pecksniffs–and the affected daughters are eventually radicalized by learning the secrets of the Pecksniff men– but every time I read a scene about the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Assurance Company, I tune out. Who could find that funny?

At its worst, there are beautifully weird sentences.  But I am not enjoying it, and can’t wait to finish.

The weird thing is that I enjoyed MC on a camping trip in the ’90s.  That’s probably because there was nothing else to do while shivering on a rocky beach on Lake Superior.

How the Internet Ruined Jane Austen

The internet ruined  Jane Austen.

It has ruined:  attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise.  That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.

I’m  not exaggerating about Austen.  When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.

Fanny Price (Billie Piper) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) in TV movie “Mansfield Park”

And what a long, strange trip that was.  Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer.  I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway.  My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.  I know he’d  make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it:  he’s so much fun!

My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though.  It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.

I fell in love with Emma in college.   The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice:  “It is so much done.”  She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!

And we all loved Emma.  She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious.   Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines.  She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.

The professor thought Austen was a  horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book.  I find Emma comical from beginning to end:  Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one.  Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine  thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do.  She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book.  So why the wrath?

For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I  could not read Austen.  And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen.  (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)

Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet.  She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.

So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…

Thanksgiving Prep in the Tiny Kitchen

There is no stress on my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving: no gifts, no (or little) disappointment about the holiday, no crying into the Scotch afterwards. It’s all about having dinner at your house, so you can act like a control freak and shoo everyone out of the kitchen.

Our kitchen is the tiniest in the world. There is no room for holiday helpers. I can’t imagine what they were thinking  in the 1920s when they built this house. Were they thinking, A servant will do all the cooking? Were they thinking, Let’s make this the most uncomfortable place for women?  The refrigerator is miniature because it has to fit under a low built-in cupboard. It is really too tiny to hold a week’s worth of food.  Every time you take out the broccoli several apples fall out, sometimes on your head. “I AM NEVER EATING AN APPLE AGAIN.” I had this conversation with an apple!

There is also little counter space. You can’t make eggplant parmesan unless you assemble it on the floor. As I recall, not only does one chop eggplant but one also grates cheese, dips the eggplant in bread crumbs and milk, and makes a tomato sauce. The bread crumbs fall off the eggplant despite the milk. And so I rarely make anything that requires more than two bowls and one pan.

I like Thanksgiving dinner. Roasting turkey is no stress—put the bird in a pan and baste—but I can no longer deal with poultry. (I’m a vegetarian who used to make holiday exceptions.)  So this year I’ve decided to have all the fixin’s sans turkey. There must be a fabulous substitute for turkey I can pick up at the market!   Any suggestions?

There are good things about Thanksgiving and bad things. The greatest thing: my husband is finally out of his sling! (A car turned into the bike lane and hit him a couple of months ago.) Another good thing: I have banned a truly horrible relative from my house.

Do you have any truly horrible relatives? Can they compete with mine? The last time we saw the Most Horrible Relative, he informed us he could only stay an hour because he was using us as a beard so he could meet some woman. I have never been so furious. Should I have told his wife?  I decided it was not my business.  But I will certainly never see him again!

The other great thing about Thanksgiving: I get to read women’s fiction! In the past I have read Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls while basting the turkey. What will I read this year? Something truly pop and sensational, I hope. Nothing comes to mind at the moment…

There are only two  bad things about Thanksgiving: it’s way too early this year (Nov 22), and it’s going to rain!

Was Helen Enamored or Abducted?

Who exactly was Helen?

Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.  Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing.  But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.

In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view.  The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers  extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.

Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and  painting the war scenes in her room:  she is a talented artist.   One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.

…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.

I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics.  Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen  declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed).  Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”

She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus.  And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”

Helen, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party.  If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly.  Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess.  But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.

Helen has said no.

Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.

What We Learned from Our Mothers & 10 Books about Aging

Gray Panthers

“Would you like to learn to knit?” I asked when my mother unwillingly moved into a nursing home.

“No.” She gave me a hostile look.

I felt maternal toward her. What was I thinking? Now that she had health problems, now that I had watched her shrink from a size 12 to size 2, now that I’d rolled her in the movie theater’s wheelchair out to a taxi after she got ill at Bridesmaids (the last film she saw in a theater), I thought I should counsel her. Just as she had encouraged me long ago to go to Paper Doll, a junior high dance at the Recreation Center, I felt she should try some new activities. Just as I’d been miserable at Paper Doll—my rebellious friends and I wore cute miniskirts and big hats but were not asked to dance—so my mother hated the idea of wielding knitting needles and yarn.

I wished she would leave her room more, but the activities were lame, I admit: doing jigsaw puzzles, making your own sundaes, and selling handmade crafts. “Who would want a bead bracelet?” Mother hooted. She explained that you never feel old, that you remain the same person, only eventually have health problems. And I remembered the Gray Panthers, founded by Abbie Kuhn in 1970, a group of activists who lobbied  for nursing-home reform, the creation of a government-subsidized, single-payer national health insurance program, and against mandatory retirement age.

I do not yet belong to the AARP. They’ve been sending info since my forties. A friend joined in her fifties and got discounts at hotels. But my husband shudders over the idea of the AARP.

Mother loved the AARP discounts. “But then nobody can believe how old I am.”

As old age approaches, it is good to be vain. “We look great,” Mother said. Of course!  Our Bodies, Ourselves!  One day, while grooming herself in a hand mirror, she pulled back her face with her fingers and said, “See how much better I’d look.” “No, you look perfect.”

Of course we are shocked to see friends age.  When my mother’s most popular friend visited, I was surprised by her drooping face and posture. One minute of conversation and i’d forgotten it. “Do I look beautiful? I just had my hair done.” And she invited me to have dinner in the hospital cafeteria.  Finally I was a popular girl!

It’s not that I like aging or look forward to old age, but we will remain exactly the same people.  Let’s hope the Gray Panthers have luck  in making our lives better.

And here are 10 great books aging, with links to Goodreads pages.

  1. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age.  A study of aging over 1,000 years.
  2.  Doris Lessing’s Love, Again.  A novel about a 65-year-old woman who falls in love during the production of a play.
  3. Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn.  A novel about four old people who work in an office and what happens when they retire.
  4. Florida Maxwell-Scott’s The Measure of My Days.  Am 86-year-old Jungian analyst on the experience of aging.
  5. Cicero’s On Old Age (De Senectute).  The Roman orator’s philosophical treatise on old age.
  6. Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing. A collection of humor pieces and essays.
  7.  Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Heilbrun is a scholar but you may know her as Amanda Cross, the pseudonym under which she wrote the Kate Fansler mysteries.
  8. Kingsley Amis’s Ending up.  An outrageous novel about a group of aged friends.
  9. Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue.  An elderly widow is about to commit suicide, but when she encounters a young man about to kill himself in the same spot, she saves him and changes her mind, too.
  10. Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises.  A brilliant novel about the fates of different characters as they face old age.

Do let me know other favorite books about aging!