How Menopause Made Me a Better Reader

In movies, menopausal women sweat during hot flashes and remove their clothes as they make the most important presentation of the year.  Ha, ha!   I assure you, nothing of the kind happened to me. It’s like the menstruation myths.  You don’t turn into an emotional witch.  And once your reproductive system doesn’t define you,  you can change your life.

READ BETTER BOOKS, I wrote in my journal.

I went back to the classics.  And since the canon has expanded to include women, there are even MORE great books to read.

The women’s canon is in flux, though.  Mind you,  I have a distorted idea of literary taste because of Anglophilia, cute blogs, internet forums, and all those English publications I read. There is a tendency today to throw everything together, the literary and pop culture.  Virginia Woolf is in the canon, but can Elizabeth Gaskell,  Viragos and Persephones possibly compete?

It would seem so, judging from enthusiastic posts on the internet.

Mind you, I love Gaskell to bits.  North and South is a delightful read, but it is no Middlemarch .  And Gaskell is not quite in the class of the other George, either:   George Gissing, who is not, I fear, quite in the  canon, though he wrote New Woman novels.

I don’t mean to start a riot when I say that Viragos and Persephones are overrated.  I have read a lot of Viragos, the A list and the B list.   Virago publishes the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor, Molly Keane, and Margaret Oliphant.  But nothing would compel me to return to the plodding Sheila Kaye-Smith or Winifred Holtby.  And though I enjoy Persephones, I do not remember a single  Persephone title.  What does that say about  wonderful middlebrow reads?

Being an American, I have a clearer idea of the American women’s canon:   Susanna Rowson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdfich…

But people quarrel constantly about the canon.  Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder are now in question.  The ALA demoted Wilder’s Little House books and took her name off an award, apparently because Pa was insensitive about Native Americans and blacks in the 19th century…   Lee’s use of the “n” word in historical context has also caused a crisis.

Is censorship on the rise? Book-banning is always popular.  The unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published until 1960.   Not long ago, an upper-class white woman chided me because “Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin make black people feel bad.” Suburban white women don’t have the final say, though.  Several African-American writers on the PBS show, The Great American Read, praised Huckleberry Finn and  To Kill a Mockingbird, which was voted the most popular American read.

In 2015, in a  New York Times dialogue about who should be kicked out of the canon, Francine Prose wrote,

One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.

Before menopause, I would have been indignant about Bloom’s list.  Fortunately, I read The Western Canon after menopause.  My list has more women, but I like the traditional canon, too.  Viva the hormone change!

Reading Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry” & Are Reading Socks Real?

This weekend I picked up a copy of Lisa Halliday’s first novel, Asymmetry, because (a) it is in paperback, and (b) it made so many critics’ Best of the Year lists.  Some of the critics are always wrong, but they can’t all be wrong, can they?

This smart, absorbing, accomplished novel is a good read.  It is divided into three sections, and I have finished the first part, “Folly .” Because I hadn’t read the reviews, I was astonished by the premise: Alice, a lonely young editor in New York, has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous prize-winning elderly writer. And it’s based loosely on fact. Halliday, who is now 41, had an affair in her 20s with Philip Roth.  He was 45 years older than she.

I probably would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t googled her and read about the thing with Philip Roth. Roth’s American Pastoral may be THE great American novel of the 20th century, but when  he began to write about very old men who had affairs with young beautiful women, I thought,  Sheer fantasy.  I was wrong!

Fortunately Halliday is such a good writer it isn’t necessary to know about the Roth affair.   In the context of the novel, it makes sense.  Alice is lonely, and her job in publishing isn’t so great.  We first meet her sitting on a park bench.

In the perfect opening sentence, Halliday sketches Alice’s character  and mood.

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?

It is funny and charming that an editor doesn’t care for a book without quotation marks.   She pretends to read it when Ezra, whom she immediately recognizes, sits down beside her to eat his ice cream.  He asks her what she’s reading:  she shows him her book.

“Is that the one with the watermelons?”

Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.

When they become lovers a few weeks later,  Ezra becomes Pygmalion to her Galatea.   He tries to educate Alice:  he gives her a bag of books he thinks she should read, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, July’s People, and The Joke.  Soon they are buddies who watch baseball games together. He is also very paternal: he sends her shopping for a warm coat  because he doesn’t think hers is warm enough, buys her an air conditioner during a heat wave, and invites her to his gorgeous country home, where she must pretend to be his research assistant.

Eventually his health problems get in the way. He has heart disease, degenerative joint disease of the spine, glaucoma, and osteoporosis.  After a  harrowing night at he emergency room, Alice cries because she  wants a “normal” relationship. His health problems are simply too much for a twentysomething woman to cope with.

I am a little more than halfway through the novel: the second part is about a different character, Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers at Heathrow.  We shall see how it all connects.

Though it may not be my favorite book of the year (too soon to tell), she has a  smart, elegant style, and I will certainly read anything else she writes!

ARE READING SOCKS REAL?

Are reading socks real?

I do want reading socks!  They sell them at Barnes and Noble.

I want magical socks for reading! It is so cold in here at night, due to my husband’s having been raised in the north and liking a cool house, that I huddle under 10 blankets and quilts while I’m reading.  Would cozy long soft socks, lined with polyester fleece,  or short socks that seem to be fake fur-trimmed slippers, make a difference?

They’re just socks, I tell myself.

I do need more socks, though.

The Class in Classics

Class is fluid when you are in classics. You can rise a class or two in the world.  Without classics, I might have puttered around for years as an office clerk or at a library circulation desk (and the latter would have been a long shot). But when you are young, have a degree in classics, and invest your life savings in preppy clothes, you can get any job. Yes, you’ll have to move to Maine or Texas, but at least you’ll work.

I fell out of the middle class for a time.  Can that really happen?  When my parents got divorced, my dad got custody, and then got bored and left me to live on my own. A lesbian teacher on the prowl picked me up (I was her second high school student) and installed me in her house for a year and a half. I wonder, what class was I then? Meretrix (a prostitute)? Serva (a slave)? Later, I knew another classics student who’d been prey to whoever came along, and had a reputation as a meretrix, poor girl. She’d had sex with the sex education teacher.

Classics brought us back into the middle class.  We both found good, if not lucrative, jobs.

Classics— derived from the Latin noun classis,  meaning “a  class or division of the people (according to property),” and classicus,  an adjective meaning “of or belonging to the highest class.”

Language enthusiasts love Greek and Latin. Some enjoy the puzzle of the grammar and syntax, others the elaborate figures of speech and meters, still others the history or the philosophy.

I was always a serious reader.  I’d devoured Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Trollope on my own. I was a Victorian, or might as well have been. But unlike John Stuart Mill, who started learning Greek when he was three,  I took it up in college.  It all started when I decided Homer was ridiculous in translation. Before I knew it I was studying Greek and Latin, and reading Homer and Virgil in the original. I was an epic freak!

It wasn’t just the literature I loved, it was the all-absorbing process of translation. It required so much equipment!  I hustled into the library and spread out my Greek and Latin books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, notebooks, and flashcards.

The Greeks and Romans are with me for better or worse, through sickness and health. In the hospital, I have recited lines of Latin poetry feverishly. Once a doctor decided I was well enough to go home when he discovered me reading Lucretius in my room.  Nowadays I snuggle up on the couch with classics and a dictionary.  I’ve read classics so long I no longer need an entire table!  There’s less “equipment.”

The ancient languages are no longer spoken; you study them to read the literature. And since you are reading poetry, plays, philosophy, oratory, history, and more, the vocabulary is different for each genre. Even if the words overlap, they mean something different. That’s why you need a dictionary.   For instance, the Latin word classis, which can mean “class,” also means “fleet (of ships).”You cannot read Virgil or Livy without encountering a  classis, a fleet of ships.

Excuse me while I go read Sappho and Catullus.  (Sappho influenced Catullus, and he translated one of her poems.”

Later!

Escape Reading: Ten Comfort Books That Beat Holiday Blues

This is the time of year when I like to slow down.  WAY down.

I don’t participate in the holiday frenzy. In the  glossy commercials, attractive nuclear families give orders to their robots, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.   Am I the only one who doesn’t want texts from my vacuum cleaner on Christmas morning?

I blot out Christmas till it’s actually here. We try to have a nice day rather than a gift exchange.

And the hours formerly devoted to shopping are now  spent reading comfort books.  Mind you, these are not all classics but they transport you to another world—and then you’re satisfied with this one!

COMFORT BOOKS THAT CALM YOU DOWN .

1  I love D. E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington, a light, charming novel I inhaled in an afternoon.

Although there is a marriage plot, the  heroine does not want to marry.  Bel, an orphan from the country, has a good job as a secretary in London.  She misses flowers and greenery, so she makes a secret garden on the flat roof outside her window. And this secret garden is so charming that I didn’t care what happened next!

One evening she finds a man sitting on her deck-chair in the garden.  Mark is an artist, and almost immediately starts sketching her.   He is fun, but impulsive and selfish. I do love Stevenson’s description of the artists’ scene!

The other man in her life is  Mr. Brownlee, her boss, who  upgrades her job responsibilities before he goes on a business trip to  South America.  Jealousies in the office escalate, and she ends up out of a job and on vacation in Scotland  with her old school friend, Louise. I won’t tell you what happens–but it ends happily for her!

The Truth by Terry Pratchett  is a witty satire of journalism, set in Pratchett’s fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.

The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, a writer whose short stories were published in The New Yorker.  She was the  daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale.  She was inspired to write this memoir about her unconventional family by relics  she found in  her mother’s studio when she cleaned it out after Lilian’s death.   A classic!

4  Carter Dickson’s And So to Murder, a  fast, funny Golden Age Detective novel with no corpses!  Set in a movie studio at the beginning of World War II, it focuses on the foibles of movie directors, writers, and actors as well as struggles to close blackout curtains and the fear of Nazi spies.

5. An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde.  Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France. He hires an architect to renovate it. While he is away finishing a film, the contractors make a mess, and everything that can go wrong does. Any home-owner will appreciate these difficulties, even if his or her house is not 500 years old!

Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful  novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain.  An enjoyable light novel!

William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life.  These delightful autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two  in a series of five.  They were praised by Kingsley Amis and John Braine.  Neglected classics!

8  In Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat,  moody flappers and free love abound. The narrator, a writer, relates the tragic  story of Iris Storm, a languorous , beautiful woman of the 1920s who wears a green hat and drives “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot.”

9 Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in for the London Times, was published as a novel in 1939.  Mrs. Miniver’s domestic life is happy, she loves her children, one of whom is at Eton, and she  describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding.” In my favorite scene,  she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a  hat.

10  Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.  Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for her children’s books. (You can read an excellent article about her by Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books.)  I thoroughly enjoyed  Girl of the Limberlost, which I recommend to fans of Anne of Green Gables.  Determined to get an education, Elnora defies her mother, a reclusive farmer who won’t give her money for new clothes.   Mocked by the other students, she walks home crying.  Two neighbors discover Elnora’s plight and buy the appropriate clothing and books – and a local expert on natural history, Bird Woman, informs her she can sell moths from her collection. An excellent coming-of-age story.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE COMFORT BOOKS?

Afternoons off: Cultural Adventures, or Reading?

I take one afternoon off a week.

The first rule of the afternoon off is:  No technology.  The second:  Have a destination.   Look at public art,  have an ice cream soda at the fun restaurant that never gets the orders right, or persuade a librarian to let you  borrow MacKinlay Cantor’s out-of-print novel, Spirit Lake, which is bizarrely in a special collection.

Fortunately, we had a gorgeous day, so I set out to look at public art.  I decided to check out the “Timeless Beaverdale” mural in the Beaverdale neighborhood.

“Timeless Beaverdale” mural:  I really don’t know where the hell this is!

The Beaverdale neighborhood has a mystique.  They love their Beaverdale bricks (brick houses), annual parade and festival (we always find squished candy on the street), and every business has “Beaverdale” in the title.

All right, I couldn’t find the mural!

There are several stores in what I think of as “downtown Beaverdale.”   But the mural wasn’t there!

And then I learned there is another block of restaurants and pubs near the Catholic church.  The mural is somewhere around there.  But the sun was setting, and the vampires would soon come out…

Another day.

AND NOW FOR FIVE LITERARY LINKS.

There are more new”Best of ” lists every day.  Although the same few books tend to get mentioned again and again, occasionally you find something new.  Here are five links!

Shelf Awareness, the publisher of two newsletters for readers and booksellers.

The Guardian.  Best books of 2018: Hilary Mantel, Yuval Noah Harari and more pick their favourites

The New York TimesTimes Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Vulture.  The 10 Best Books of 2018

And last but not least:

Largehearted Boy, a compilation of  Online Best Books of 2018 links

Happy Reading and Happy Afternoons off!

The Shaping of a Liberal & Reading “Reinventing Anarchy”

The politics of the 2010s could not be more different from the problematic politics of the 1970s.  But at least back then we witnessed the rise of the ecology movement, the Clean Air Act, Second Wave feminism, the legalization of abortion, the end of the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Nixon.  And now the country is going backwards.

And that is why I am reading the 1979 tome, Reinventing Anarchy: What Are Anarchists Thinking These Days?   I want finally to comprehend the political views that inspired social change and resistance to government oppression.

I am not particularly political, but in my hometown everybody was a radical. Some were brilliant; others simply lacked good sense.  When I tell my husband about the teacher who taught me to shoplift (an activity I disapprove of, by the way, but which was then anti-capitalist or something), he asks, “Were any of your teachers not radicals?”

In this university town, the leftists were teachers, professors, students, freaks ( hippies), and  friends’ parents.  They believed their voices and actions could make a difference. Students pursued the Dean on bicycles, took over buildings, and marched the streets. Radicals formed collectives. And thus sprang up the Women’s Center, a women’s health clinic, day-care co-ops, a food co-op, free legal aid offices, and more.

Whether they were socialists, anarchists, or other I couldn’t say. I  didn’t know the “-isms.”

My closest friend was the daughter of radicals. We absorbed some of her parents’ ideas but in general ignored them.  We listened to The Band and wrote satires together. And we believed earnestly we would  one day be like Anna and Molly, the “Free Women” of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Damn Google!   I learned from Google that she died in her forties, survived by her parents and cat.  And the part about the cat got to me.

Absurdly, I wondered if our health would have been better had we had not lost touch.  When she moved away, her parents invited me to come and live in their collective, but I erroneously thought my father needed me, and what if I had to attend political meetings in the collective?  (I am sure they would have spared us that!)  My friend had a breakdown, and I had a couple of nightmarish years.  Were we, as Hillary used to say, “Stronger together”?

I picked up the anthology Reinventing Anarchy because one of the writers is  a couple of degrees of separation away.  And there are some brilliant articles about feminism, the failure of the electoral system, and the differences between anarchism and Marxism. There are also poems, cartoons, and posters.

I have crudely absorbed a few of their principles, and I assure you that they are the opposite of the stereotype of the anarchist.   Their goal is the non-violent destruction of hierarchy.  They believe small groups and collectives can be a means of personal and political liberation.   And of course everyone should get an equal wage, though perhaps adjusted for families.  But, unlike Marxists, their emphasis is really on working to better the community without hierarchy.  The writers of this book admit they’re a bit like libertarians.

Judith Malina writes in the article, “Anarchists and the Pro-Hierarchical Left”:

There is nothing integral to the nature of human social organization that makes hierarchy, centralization and elitism inescapable. These organizational forms persist, in part because they serve the interests of those at the top. They persist, too, because we have learned to accept roles of leadership and followership; we have come to accept hierarchy as necessary, and centralization as efficient. All of this is to say that we learned the ideological justifications for elite organizations quite well.

Very idealistic, but I do not believe we will ever see these changes.

The liveliest and most fascinating essay is  Kingsley Widmer’s“Three Times around the Track: how American workouts helped me become an anarchist.”  He writes about how the junior high coach used to punish them by making them run three times around the track.  This is his metaphor for how we learn to obey authority and knuckle under in the workplace.

I will not read all the articles in the books, but I understand a little more about anarchism.

And here is a cartoon in the book that I think is pertinent to today.

Wintry Mood Reading: Five Books & an Ode

It is dark at 5 p.m., and I don’t deal well with the dark.  Every winter, I struggle with the gloom and the cold.  Thank God the Winter Solstice is almost here, so we can look forward to the return of lighter days. Meanwhile, turn on  the lights, drink some wine, and get in the winter mood by reading wintry books.

Here are:

FIVE WINTRY BOOKS & AN ODE.

1.   Ice by Anna Kavan.   Kavan, an English writer who became addicted to heroin during a stay in the hospital in the 1930s, has a reputation as a “cult” writer. In her famous novel, Ice, the world is on the brink of an icy nuclear war, and the narrator is searching for a mysterious, fragile girl who has eluded her two male pursuers, the narrator and her husband (who thinks she is in need of psychiatric treatment). For those of us who’ve read Kavan’s biography, it is obvious that the fragile girl is based on Kavan, who charmed men but rejected them in favor of heroin.  The narrator of Ice tells us, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”  Lyrical prose and a weird trip through a winter world.

2.   The Silent Land by Graham Joyce.  The plot of this eerie novel is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife.   Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday.  One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else, and then there is an avalanche.  Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air.  They make it back to the hotel, which is eerily empty, and have all the food they need, but every time they try to leave the village they cannot get beyond a point. What is happening?  Are they dead?  This novel is brilliant beyond description.

3.   In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende.  In this gorgeously written novel, Allende deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man. The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York.   Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile,  is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why Richard, her cheap landlord and boss at NYU, doesn’t turn up the heat.  Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is also dealing with the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance  after the 1973 coup in Chile.  When Lucia and Richard encounter a Guatemalan refugee, they take a drive in a blizzard to save her from her homicidal employer.

4.  Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  I never appreciated this Nobel-winning classic until I read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s elegant translation in 2010. Talk about winter:  this brilliant realistic novel  has more snowy scenes than you’re likely to endure in the Arctic in the age of global warning.  Doctor Yuri Zhivago, an idealist, doctor, and poet,  does what he needs to survive the Russian Revolution but is separated from his family and conscripted as an army doctor. He also struggles with his love for Lara, a teacher who is the wife of a fanatical revolutionary.  Utterly breathtaking, history, romance, and snow.

5.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  In this award-winning science fiction novel, the soldier narrator, Breq, has trouble identifying gender, and is on a special mission in search of a special antique gun.  The book opens like a noir western:  on a winter planet (a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), Breq finds a body in the snow:  it is  Seivarden, a person he used to know and didn’t like.  Seivarden’s body, frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster, was recently rediscovered and thawed. She is  a drug addict who will sell anything she can find  for drugs. Breq understands her tragic history:  she refused “re-education” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand.  The two form a strange alliance.  You won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

7.  And as a bonus, here is Dryden’s  translation of one of Horace’s odes about winter, Ode I.X

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter’s weight
Oppress the labouring woods below’
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.