The Survivalist Generation

The survivalists.

Every generation of cats is different.

Long ago, we adopted our first generation of free kittens.  It was like living in a picture book:  they daintily drank milk, adorably raced around the apartment chasing toys, and once ventured through a loose panel in the linen cupboard which led under the floor.  Naturally, they got lost.  We had to walk above them and call their names to guide them back through the panel.

Recently, we had a survivalist generation of cats.  The strong-willed tortoiseshell (pictured above) and the white cat with brown and gray markings hopped into the tub first thing in the morning to lap water out of the faucet.  They also drank out of their bowl, but the tub had a fascination for them.

They lived to be very, very old ladies.  They died in 2019.  We miss them so much.

Illustration by B. Kliban

A friend said recently, “What if there’s heaven for cats and not people?”

We all believe in heaven for cats!

And here’s a lovely poem:

“On the Death of a Cat,” by Christina Rossetti

Who shall tell the lady’s grief
When her Cat was past relief?
Who shall number the hot tears
Shed o’er her, beloved for years?
Who shall say the dark dismay
Which her dying caused that day?

Come, ye Muses, one and all,
Come obedient to my call.
Come and mourn, with tuneful breath,
Each one for a separate death;
And while you in numbers sigh,
I will sing her elegy.

Of a noble race she came,
And Grimalkin was her name.
Young and old full many a mouse
Felt the prowess of her house:
Weak and strong full many a rat
Cowered beneath her crushing pat:
And the birds around the place
Shrank from her too close embrace.
But one night, reft of her strength,
She laid down and died at length:
Lay a kitten by her side,
In whose life the mother died.
Spare her line and lineage,
Guard her kitten’s tender age,
And that kitten’s name as wide
Shall be known as her’s that died.

And whoever passes by
The poor grave where Puss doth lie,
Softly, softly let him tread,
Nor disturb her narrow bed.

What We’re Reading: Anne Bronte & Lucy Ellmann

Anne Bronte

This is a month for reading long books.  I decided this when I learned January 17 is the bicentenary of Anne Bronte’s birthday.  How could I skip that celebration?   Naturally, I am rereading Anne.  She wrote just two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so this is easier than you might think. Somewhere I have a collection of the  poems.  Too bad there isn’t more.

I am also reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the behemoth of a novel that won the 2019 Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and the Saltire  Award.  The critics were uniformly reverent:  “It is experimental!  It is the women’s Ulysses!  It is one long 1,000-page sentence!”

 Somehow it’s not like that.  It is quite accessible if you enjoy stream-of consciousness. The narrator is an American housewife, buoyantly musing on Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter, Doctor Zhivago, Trump, abortion rights, her expensive dough-kneading machine, baking cinnamon rolls and pies, choosing crudités for a cocktail party, her son’s preference for yellow crayons, her daughter’s disapproval of her sweatpants, her inability to get handymen to fix the washer on the faucet, the sad fact that they went broke when she had cancer, and much more. I’m sure she gets less buoyant at some point, but there is plenty of humor.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I am reading Ducks with the same fascination I have for women’s magazines. The housewife’s musings could easily be published in Good Housekeeping, Redbook, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal–if there were periods instead of commas and these magazines all existed!

And when I say that, I mean it as a good thing. I have very much enjoyed what I’ve read so far.  I think many other women would like it, too, even if they’re not fans of experimental novels.

More on this later.

On Not Bothering to Read Everything

What ho!  Happy January 5!  We have made it through the first few days and so far have kept our  New Year’s resolutions—one of the most fun things about the calendar’s rolling over.

So far, my easiest resolution to keep is by far the oddest, but I promise it will bring you calm and mindfulness.  Are you ready?


You don’t have to read everything. Really, you don’t.  If you suspect something will annoy you, skip it.  If you are an expert on a subject, you needn’t bother to seethe over the opinions of every counter-expert.  Often it’s the most trivial details that ruffle feathers.

And so I stare beadily at the headlines, hoping for a psychic flash on whether an article will prove enlightening or irritating.

Take books about grammar.  I enjoy a brisk debate about whether the nominative absolute is dead.  I love understanding relative pronouns and explaining the difference between “who” and “whom.” I  have given many people copies of Strunk and White, Dreyer’s English Grammar, Patricia O’Connor’s Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing, and similar books

But do I need to read every new book on grammar? No, but it is time to reread Strunk and White.  (It’s been too long.)  New books on grammar can take only two directions:  they either uphold the traditions , such as the proper form of relative pronouns and the use of the subjunctive, or they  insist that all such grammatical forms are antiquated and should be outlawed. 

Recently The New York Times published a review of David Shariatmadari’s new book, Don’t Believe a Word.  It may be a very good book, but I daren’t read the review.  The subhead says, “David Shariatmadari’s book delves into issues like grammar snobbery, quirks of human and animal speech, and the transformation of even the simplest words.” 

I love a good self-improvement book about grammar snobbery,  but the subhead hints that it may be the reverse.  What if it’s a book about throwing out the rules?  If it’s my kind of book, somebody tell me, okay?  Otherwise, I don’t want to know!

Loving Rumer Godden’s “Black Narcissus” & Dottily Reading to Blog

Oh, joy! The holidays are behind us and the days are getting longer.  I love sunlight, and if I lived in ancient times I would worship Helios. 

I took a middlebrow book break in December to cheer myself up in the dark days before the Winter Solstice.  I am now hooked on Rumer Godden, who is very high middlebrow.  I recently finished her engaging first novel, Black Narcissus, published in 1937. 

Godden weaves the fascinating story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas–a mission with very mixed results.  Distracted from their meditations, partly because of the altitude, partly because of the extreme weather, partly because of the constant noise of construction/revovations in the palace-turned-convent, the nuns become daydreamers.  It’s as if they are on a reluctant drug trip, escaping through fantasies of might-have-been marriages, exotic gardens, and tragic personal histories.  The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together, but even she finds herself slipping.

Godden’s whimsical descriptions of daily life in the convent and her character-revealing dialogue are charming.  In the following excerpt,  it is Christmas Eve, and the nuns have  returned to the convent soaking wet and freezing cold after cutting boughs in the forest on Christmas Eve and find a gift waiting for them.

‘It’s a parcel for us!’ cried Sister Honey.

‘Not for us,’ corrected Sister Clodagh. ‘Mr Dean knows better than to send us presents. It’s for the Order.’

‘That’s splitting a hair,’ said Sister Ruth boldly, but, as if she had not heard her, Sister Clodagh opened the parcel. Inside were five pairs of Tibetan boots, knee high and made of felt and worked with wool and lined with fleece.

‘Ahh!’ whispered Sister Briony, going down on her knees as if they were something holy. ‘Dear goodness! Just feel the warmth and the fleece and the softness. Blessings on the dear, dear man. Now I shall be able to get about on my poor feet without wanting to cry at every step.’

Middlebrow Book Break is over. I am in the middle (can’t get away from middle!) of  two big, relentlessly long books. I love them, but it will take a while to read them.  Meanwhile, as a  constant blogger, I wonder, What will I blog about?

I had a little talk with myself.  “You know better than that.  YOU DO NOT READ TO BLOG.”

 THAT IS JUST THE END if I start giving myself assignments.  No, Kat, you are certainly not an editor pitching books to yourself.

The dialogue between self as editor and self as writer goes like this.

“There’s a new book out; somehow we missed it; everybody else has reviewed it.  Can you read it overnight and do a quick phone interview with  the author?  Oh, and can you take five buses,  three trains, and walk a mile to pick up the book?”

Now you can get the books on Netgalley.  But is it a privilege to be a pinch hitter?  

Perhaps I’m going on another reading path now.  I want to get back to pre-Wifi days, when I savored Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks without worrying about getting it done.  I loved Buddenbrooks so much I went to a free showing of an old black-and-white German movie, and was enraptured even though I hardly understood any of it.

Before I began my book journal in the zips, I never thought about the number of books I read.  I recently looked through it, and you know what?  Reading the titles, dates, and authors means little to to me.  In the zips I discovered Monica Dickens and read a lot of her, in the 2010s I reread a lot of Charles Dickens.  What does it mean?  

Somehow, this doesn’t sum up those years for me.  Sometimes I can remember a particular day when I read a book, or the bookstore where I found it.  But it leaves me with the question, What was I like back then?  Wouldn’t it be almost better to write down the weather report?  Sunny…sunny…rained…misted.

Should You Burn Your Diaries? and Other Musings

I’ve kept a lot of diaries in my time, usually with fancy covers.  I have a leather blank-page book with a flower embossed on the cover (I meant to write poetry in it),  two Jane Austen notebooks (very cute), quaint imported notebooks, spiral notebooks, Moleskine notebooks which somehow I never fill up, and a Penguin On the Road notebook.

Mind you, I do not “journal”; I write in a journal. I also dislike the verbal adjective“journaling” (a gerund).  The mere mention of a “journaling” class in an adult education catalogue repels me.  In my experience, people who talk about “journaling” tend to be breathy pre-Raphaelite types who cry in public and are diagnosed with the mysterious borderline personality.  Everyone has sympathy, because they are so outwardly feeble (tough as nails inside, though).  Alas, we are not pre-Raphaelite flowers in the meadow here. It’s the midwest, baby.  We are goddamned tough prairie grass.

I wish I could say I’d recorded the narrative of my life in journals, but, alas,  I only write in them when I am feeling blue.  And that is sad!  I have mused on the loss of a friend with leukemia, and days spent sobbing after my favorite cat was put down because her kidneys were failing.  And why hang on to all this sadness?  How can I get rid of these journals?

It would be symbolic to purge the sadness by make a bonfire of the diaries, but that is illegal:  open burning pollutes the air.   What other methods?Shredding? However, it takes about an hour to shred a single page on our Office Depot shredder.  Perhaps there are super-shredders at one of the old photocopying stores.   

THE BULLET JOURNAL.  A few days ago, when I looked up New Year trends, many magazine writers and bloggers cited the “bullet journal.” I have had trouble grasping the concept, but it seems to be a planner.  The women’s magazine Good Housekeeping claims that  bullet journals are sui generis.  “Unlike traditional organizers and planners, this method encourages authors to examine how their goals, tasks, and responsibilities make them feel. Instead of a standard checklist, bullet journaling requires daily, monthly, and yearly reflections along with bullet points and asterisks.”

Well, that is fine with me, though I’ll stick to my planner.  

WHAT ABOUT ALBUMS?  I would like to see a revival of old-fashioned albums, like the one in Jane Austen’s Emma.  When Emma and Harriet ask Mr. Elton to write in an album, he writes a romantic riddle, which Emma is sure is for Harriet; no, it is for Emma.  Other friends write verses. 

 Autograph albums were briefly trendy in my childhood.  We never met famous people, but who cared?   My friends wrote a lot of goofy stuff.

What is your favorite kind of journal?  Or do you get rid of them, in which case you must tell me how!

Trends in 2020: How to Have Fun in the Future!

The Midnight Grapes!

It seems appropriate to look to the future now that 2020 is on everyone’s lips.  While poring over lifestyle magazines and websites, I decided to compile links to five articles about 2020 trends.  It’s fun to fantasize about the future.  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll get there.

I was enchanted to learn the messy bedroom is a trend. Snap a photo of your boudoir with the unmade bed, teacups, piles of books, Tarot cards, and the dog shedding hair on your easy chair—and voila!  A lifestyle article at The Guardian claims this is actually a thing:  “The anti-Marie Kondo movement continues, with untidy, unfiltered photos all over Insta.”

Good Housekeeping lists “15 Awesome Things to Do on New Year’s Day to Get 2020 Started Right.”  Starting right doesn’t sound fun with a hangover, but it is always healthy to declutter, go to the gym, etc.   Good Housekeeping also recommends starting a bullet journal. Can anyone explain what a bullet journal is?  Everybody I know just has a spiral notebook.

USA Today tells us about “eating for luck” on New Year’s Eve.  The foods seem random, but eating 12 grapes at midnight certainly couldn’t hurt.  And “round foods” resemble money, so we should also eat peas and lentils—those I assume we eat earlier.

What about hobbies for 2020?  Little Coffee Fox suggests “hand lettering” (we used to call it calligraphy), flower arranging, and, you guessed it, bullet journaling.  I do like the idea of flower arranging—it sounds very Barbara Pym!

I adored an article at Good Housekeeping about decorating trends for 2020.  One would love to decorate, but somehow one doesn’t.  “Vintage accents” are  in fashion (tables with spooled legs and chair backs with spindles, very cute, but probably expensive). And navy blue is in, because the 2020 Pantone Color of the Year is Classic Blue (a navy shade). 

What trends do you foresee in 2020?

Best Books of the Year:  Reading across the Centuries

Happy Saturday Night!  It’s not New Year’s Eve yet, but I’m making my Best Books of the Year list already–late by most standards, I realize.

Mind you, I’m compiling the list by “genre,” so I will neglect many great books.  Only four of these books are “new,”but I’ve tried to include some surprises.  Of course Dickens is my favorite, but I left him off the list because you know him.  Type Dickens in the search box if you want to read my thoughts on Dickens.

Get ready for a wild ride across the centuries. 

BEST NEW ENGLISH NOVEL (2019):  Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day.  Why didn’t this at least make the Booker Prize shortlist?  This insightful, delicate, lyrical novel examines the close friendships of two couples in their fifties–and the unlooked-for changes wrought by the death of one of them.  (My post is here.)

BEST NEW AMERICAN NOVEL (2018):  Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  This retelling of Beowulf from a feminine point of view is gloriously poetic and unconventional.  Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter: this retold version stands on its own.  Set in a suburban gated community called Herot Hall, this version focuses on the women characters, especially the mothers.   Dana, an ex-soldier with PTSD, lives in a cave under the mountain with her son Gren (Grendel), a boy born with teeth and claws; her suburban counterpart, Willa, is the miserable wife of the heir of Herot Hall, who is cheating on her with a neighbor, and Willa is also the ice-cold mother of Dylan, a lonely friendless boy.  (You can read the rest of my post here.)

BEST NEW NOVEL IN TRANSLATION (2019): Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden.  The Jewish narrator,  Maya Klotsvog, dismisses the impact of Soviet history on her character, despite her tragic past.  Absorbed in love affairs and multiple marriages that ultimately hurt her family, she has a psychological explanation for other people’s errors, but does not examine her own.  The most extraordinary novel I’ve read this year.

BEST NEW HISTORY (2019):  Orlando Figes’ The Europeans:  Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture.  Fans of the great Ivan Turgenev will love  this sparkling, exuberant  history of the development of European culture in the the 19th century.  The book focuses on the relationship between the Russian writer Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer.  This trio was influential in promoting the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists.  And the building of railroads proved to be the international link between European and Russian cultures.  You can read my review here.

BEST POLITICAL NOVEL:  Mary McCarthy’s Cannibals and Missionaries, a  novel about terrorism, was first published in 1979.  Forty years later, it remains relevant, a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, a hijacking of a plane, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence.   You can read my post here.

MOST  TIMELY POLITICAL SPEECH:  Cicero’s Against Verres (In Verrem), an oration calling for the impeachment of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily.  When I read this speech in July (in Latin), I had no idea how relevant it would be this year.

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL NOVEL:   Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, a novel about industrial pollution and urban sprawl in the early 20th century.  Pulitzer Prize-winning Booth Tarkington was revived in 2019 with a new Library of America’s edition of  his novels and stories.  The Midlander didn’t make the cut, but it is one of Tarkington’s best, the story of a wealthy family who experiences the gradual fall of their city  as smoky factories are built in their posh urban neighborhood and  people flee to the suburbs.  Ironically, the mediocre son of the family, whom everybody thought was crazy,  foresaw this change.  

BEST DYSTOPIAN NOVEL:  Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. This gripping, realistic novel about a nuclear holocaust in the U.S., published in 1959, is a neglected American classic—and one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. If you were riveted by Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, you will find Alas fascinating, because it deals not with the knowledge of impending death but with nearly unsolvable problems of survival.  You can read my post here.

BEST VICTORIAN NOVEL:  Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale.  In this neglected Victorian classic, Ward portrays a stormy relationship between an atheist woman and a Catholic man who fall in love.  Ward’s strongly-delineated characters are reminiscent of some of the Brontës’ creations:  the heroine, Laura Fountain, bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Snowe in Villette, with traces of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’ Catherine;  the hero, Alan  Belbeck, is a hybrid of M. Paul (Villette) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre).  You can read my post here.

BEST POETRY:  The Silvae of Statius.  Betty Rose Nagle’s translation of Statius, a Roman poet of the first century A.D., is brilliant and extremely readable.  In fact, I can’t praise it too highly.  This summer I read his poems in Latin:  perhaps his most famous is the Ode to Sleep. My favorite is his elegy to a lion who dies fighting in the Roman arena, but I also loved a poem in which Statius tries to persuade his wife Claudia to leave Rome and retire with him to Naples, his hometown.