E. M. Delafield’s Debutantes, “Dreadful Young Ladies,” and “Emily of New Moon”

I intended to read E. M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are, a novel about a disenchanted housewife.  After fifty pages, however, I discovered I was  reading the wrong Delafield.

Virago covers look remarkably alike, and I had picked up Thank Heaven Fasting instead of The Way Things Are.   Although the former is a gripping story of debutante life, I kept wondering when the debutante would  become a housewife!

I think I’ll put Thank Heaven Fasting aside.  Although I adore Delafield’s Diary of a  Provincial Lady, a serial about domestic life that originally appeared in Time and Tide, I have never found equals among her other novels.  And I am not fond of debutantes.  Full disclosure:  I used to teach Latin to debutantes.  It was exasperating when they were excused from class to have their makeup done or take waltzing lessons.   N.B.  Many recovered from their debutante phase, I hear.

KELLY BARNHILL’S DREADFUL YOUNG LADIES AND OTHER STORIES.  If you admire Angela Carter’s twisted imagination, you will enjoy Kelly Barnhill’s superb collection of short stories, Dreadful Young Ladies.  In the first story, “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sessquatch,” Mrs. Sorenson shows up at Our Lady of the Snows for her husband’s funeral with mice in her pocket and followed by a dog, a raccoon, a cat, hawks, and an otter–the deer stays outside.  The priest is started, but the animals behave with perfect decorum.  The priest develops a crush on Mrs. Sorenson, and other men also admire her.  Later, when there are sightings of a Sasquatch (a Bigfoot), the priest discovers a surprise connection to Mrs. Sorenson.  All the stories are odd and enjoyable, peopled by ghosts, witches, pirates, and magicians.  Barnhill’s style is spare but poetic.  I love this book!

L. M. MONTGOMERY’S Emiy of New Moon.  Here’s how I discovered the Emily books:  in a column in Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life, Ellis is upset to discover her daughter reading Judy Blume.  (I’ve never read Blume, but I vaguely remember she was once considered controversial.)   Ellis visits the Daughter’s school library and ends up borrowing Montgomery’s three Emily books, Emily of New  Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

I just finished the first book in Montgomery’s trilogy,  Emily of New Moon.  Emily is quite a bit like Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables:  both Emily and Anne are orphans and aspiring writers.  When Emily’s father dies of consumption, no one wants to take Emily in.  Her relatives draw lots and it falls to strict Aunt Elizabeth, soft-hearted Aunt Laura, and whimsical Cousin Jimmy to take her home to New Moon farm.  Aunt Elizabeth does not like children, but Emily loves New Moon and Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy are fond of her.  It takes longer to win over Elizabeth.

I especially enjoyed Emily’s diary entries written in the form of letters to her dead father.  Her observations are delightful, and she befriends many eccentrics.   She records the colorful curses  of her best friend, Ilse, the neglected daughter of “an infidel” doctor.  The two girls constantly quarrel, and one night during a sleepover Ilse challenges Emily to sleep in the “haunted” attic, which Emily does because she cannot let Ilse get the better of her.  It ends in her committing a heroic act.  Emily also enjoys visits to Lofty John, a farmer who has feuded with the New Moon residents for decades.  Naturally the aunts don’t know about this friendship.   Emily eats more than a few of his apples, one of which she believes is poisoned.  The death letter she writes to Ilse is hilarious.

I kept laughing over the dialogue.  Aunt Elizabeth is frequently exasperated with Emily.

“Don’t  ever let me see you kissing a cat again,” she ordered.

“Oh, all right,” said Emily cheerfully.  “I’ll only kiss her when you don’t see me after this.”

“I don’t want any of your pertness, miss.  You are not to kiss cats at all.”

“But Autn Elizabeth, I didn’t kiss her on the mouth, of course.  I just kissed her between the ears.  It’s nice–won’t you just try it for once and see for yourself?”

I’m grateful to Alice Thomas Ellis for introducing me to Emily!

Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers”

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction.

This old-fashioned realistic novel is solid and remarkably well-researched.  Shifting back and forth in time between 1985 and 2005, it focuses on the  AIDS epidemic in Chicago and its impact on two characters, Yale Tishman, a gay man who works as the development director for an art gallery at Northwestern, and Fiona, whose brother Nico dies of AIDS.  Yale was a friend of Niko and Fiona.

In the mid-1980s, Yale is watching his friends die, terrified of the virus to which he has been exposed, and also attempting to procure an art collection for the gallery. Fiona’s aunt, whose late husband was a Northwestern alumnus,  wants to donate the art to the gallery, but her family tries to prevent her.  In 2005, Fiona, who never recovered from the loss of her brother,  is searching for her daughter, Claire, who  disappeared first into a cult, and then left for Paris.

This book  is well-written, moving, and craftsmanlike. That said,  I stopped on page 234.    Perhaps it’s just November, but I didn’t want to see one more man die.  I did read two brilliant AIDS novels in the ’90s, Alan Gurganus’s Plays Well with Others and Christopher Coe’s Such Times.  (Coe died of AIDS.)  But even though I didn’t finish this, I wouldn’t be unhappy if it won.  It is a noble book.

Lucia Berlin’s “Evening in Paradise”

This fall I planned to catch up with 21st-century fiction, but  I quickly hit a reality check: (a) I prefer classics, and (b) only a few new books are worth reading.

Take Lucia Berlin (1936-2004).  I adore Berlin’s fiction but of course it was written in the 20th century.  Her witty, buoyant, autobiographical short stories  were out-of-print  until Farrar Straus Giroux published  A Manual for Cleaning Women in 2015.  And now FSG has published another superb collection, Evening in Paradise:  More Stories.

Berlin is noted for her dark humor and sharp observations of down-and-out middle-class women. Many of the stories portray witty, smart heroines who share Berlin’s history.  She herself struggled with alcoholism and was in and out of rehab programs.   After marrying  a sculptor and then a musician, she raised four sons on her own and worked  as a cleaning woman, hospital clerk, high school teacher, college writing teacher, and physician’s assistant.

In one of my favorite stories, “The Wives,” Laura and Decca have little in common, except for being the alcoholic ex-wives of Max.  When they get together for drinks one night–and Decca is so drunk she can’t even remember inviting Laura over–they humorously mourn the fact that Max is about to marry either a car hop or a Clinique salesgirl, depending on which you believe.  The dialogue is so sharp and witty Dorothy Parker could have written it.   A brilliant and funny story, also terribly sad.

In”Noel, 1974,” Maggie, a teacher, has an unwanted guest for Christmas, Aunt Zelda, who tries desperately to fit in by saying “Far out” all the time.    The house is already crowded with Maggie’s four sons, one sleeping in the garage, their 17-year-old pothead friend, Jesse, in a sleeping bag in the living room, and Maggie gives her room to Zelda.  Over the holiday, they do normal family things:  they attend Maggie’s son’s school Christmas pageant, quarrel over decorating the tree, and have a huge, chaotic dinner.  And then Aunt Zelda becomes frantic when she learns her daughter Mabel is gay.  These family scenes are right out of a comic movie, but Maggie’s exhaustion takes her in an  unexpectedly dark direction.  (There is a similar story in A Manual for Cleaning Women.)

In “My Life Is an Open Book,” Claire Bellamy teaches Spanish at the university and lives happily but chaotically with her sons in a farmhouse.  When she gets involved with 19-year-old Mike Casey, a drug-using guitar player, a neighbor starts to gossip.  After they break up, oblivious of the neighbor’s gossip, he babysits for her sons so she can go to a party.  While she is out, the youngest son disappears. But let me reassure you:  life is hard for Claire, but nothing terrible happens.

The title story, “Evening in Paradise,” is not my favorite, but it has its points:  The Night of the Iguana is being filmed in Mexico, and the bartender observes Liz Taylor, Richard Burton (not drinking at the time), Ava Gardner, and various tourists and male prostitutes drinking nightly at the hotel.  Much of this is very witty, but I am not a movie buff.

Lucia Berlin is a great American writer!  Astonishing her work was lost for so long.

I Voted for the Environment!

I used to have hippie-dippie ideas about voting.  The politicians were all fools, so why vote?

The  office where I worked, however,  was next-door to Democratic headquarters.  One of the Dems offered  me a ride to the polls the first year I was eligible to vote.  After that I realized it was my duty.

Did I vote today?  Naturally.  There are many important issues, but I am  concerned mostly about the environment.  The  UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last month that we have only 12 years before  environmental damage like global warming is irreversible.  That’s 2030, people!

I did not, however, like waking up to see a Google doodle on the computer commanding me to vote.  I do not care for computer programs using the imperative mood.  It’s an intrusion.

Google doodle

Nonetheless, I made my way to the polls.  And I wore my Jesse Jackson for President ’84  button  because it seemed as good a way as any to protest conservative Republican politics.   Anyway, it is 1984!

I do hope the Democrats are  voting today.  Let’s get out all our liberal political buttons and wear them!

Alice Thomas Ellis’s “More Home Life”

It has been raining a lot, so I  indulged myself by staying home  and rereading  Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life Two, or More Home Life. The “Home Life” columns were written for the Spectator in the 1980s, and then collected and published in four volumes.  Ellis, who was nominated for the Booker Prize for her novel  The 27th Kingdom, is an equally witty essayist.  Her columns range in subject from meditations on domestic life to the burlesque of being mistaken for a prostitute in a bar to freezing on vacation in Wales because nobody understands the boiler.

Some of these essays strike a “chord” with me (literally).    In “Too Many Love Songs,” she admits she doesn’t care for most music.  She says outrageously, “I don’t know which I hate more, Mozart or the Rolling Stones…”  (I do like the Rolling Stones, but I agree about Mozart.). But when her favorite shows on Radio 4 are repeated, she listens to the music on Radio 2.

…as I washed the dishes I was struck by the fact that every single song was about love.  For me, on a scale of one to ten, romance comes about eighth, after chess but before politics and football.  I scarcely ever give it a thought.  My mind is usually taken up with what to cook for lunch, or why I’ve got an overdraft when I’ve hardly bought anything, or who’s going to feed the boa constrictor while its master is away on holiday, or where the daughter is, or why the mat from outside the bathroom is draped up the steps to the barn.  Perhaps these topics are not suitable to be set to music, but surely someone could think of something to sing about as well as love.

I agree with Ellis!  The rock songs I grew up with were always about love, not to mention the Frank Sinatra songs my mother listened to.  And since real life generally consists of other activities, it’s no wonder that women read romance novels.

Many of you will cackle over Ellis’s essay, “Over-booked.”  When she reads a confusing article in the newspaper about the British book trade’s schemes to compete with shops like Marks & Spencer, she has trouble deciphering the meaning.  She quotes an almost unintelligible paragraph:  the book trade needs to”reallocate resources”and “market the product better overall and so that  we strive to produce a product which is going to be popular and of the highest quality.”

Ellis informs us that 50,000 books were published last year.  She wries facetiously, “If only these multiple titles could be reduced to, say, 100 standard lines–ideally to ONE BOOK written jointly by a committee of tried and tested best-selling authors…”

Home Life is so much fun to read.  Unfortunately these books are out-of-print.

When Writers Don’t Know Enough: A Glib List of Books That (May Have) Shaped American Culture

Ephron’s classic collection of essays didn’t make the list.

Attempts to define the canon can be problematic even for Harold Bloom and Elaine Showalter, but Emily Temple, a Millennial who is a senior editor at Literary Hub, is not afraid to miss the mark. She glibly compiled a list of books she thinks shaped the literary culture in the U.S. from  1900 to the present.  She says in her article “A Century of Books” (actually more than a century) that these books, “if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade.”

Wow, even  as a confident young reviewer I did not suffer from this kind of hubris.  And at the TLS or The New York Review of Books, this list would be a task for a team of  contributors, among them critics, biographers, novelists, and sociologists.

But Temple  writes,

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.

I do not take lists seriously, but the first thing that struck me was how little Temple knows about American history. Her ten choices per decade are bizarre–do Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes,  and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy really deserve three slots in the 1910s?– but she is also surprisingly sexist, naming only two or three women per decade. Never mind that in the 1960s she left out Tillie Olsen, Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Denise Levertov, Ellen Willis, and Adrienne Rich.   On her list for the 1970s, the height of Second Wave feminism, she mentions only  one book by a woman:  Judy Blume’s Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret. (Apparently it’s not so long ago that Temple was reading childrne’s books.)

Better even than Raymond Carver!

it does make me wonder what on earth Millennials think the 1970s were about.  Our Bodies, Ourselves changed women’s health care;  Erica Jong’s best-selling Fear of Flying was compared to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn; Nora Ephron’s stunning  essay,”A Few Words about Breasts,” in Crazy Salad made all small-breasted women feel better; Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics influenced literary criticism, as did The Madwoman in the Attic, by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert; Ann Beattie’s minimalist  first collection of stories, Distortions, and novel Chilly Scenes of Winter were published simultaneously in 1976; and The Environmental Handbook, released for the first Earth Day, introduced us to ways of saving the planet, if only people had listened….

If this list had been called “Fun Books in Amerika,” I wouldn’t have minded, but Temple takes herself too seriously.  And this is why I don’t trust shallow online publications.  Editors of print publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post are still careful about what they print and would have assigned “A Century of Reading” to writers who had done the reading.

Mimi on Tolstoy in Maureen Howard’s “The Rags of Time”

 Today, when I told my husband I was finishing up two books this month, he asked, “Is one of them War and Peace?”

I love Tolstoy so much that it is a family joke.  But, no, I haven’t been reading it.

I just finished Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, a kind of woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  And there are a few references to War and Peace.

Howard’s double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park, recalls reading War and Peace as a girl one summer in her parents’ bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ( N.B.  This episode is also in Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life.)   And near the end of Rags, her husband picks up Mimi’s copy of War and Peace and reads the notes on her rereading . 

“She had read to page 733 in War and Peace, marking the confrontation between Napoleon and the Russian emissary as they moved ahead to their bloody war.  Girlish!!! in the margin next to the description of the emperor. . . a white waistcoat so long that it covered his round stomach, white doeskin breeches fitting tightly over the fat thighs of his stumpy legs, and Hessian boots.  His snuff box, his cologne!  Her notes, trailing down the side of the page, remarked upon the brilliant maneuvers of the scene, the slippery give-take of diplomacy, the rough talk of plain take.  He presumed she’d read the love story, though this time round, her second chance, notes in the margin revealed how closely she observed the lush setting of the Tsar’s palace, the slippery make-nice that preceded war.  Revise, reread, work ahead right up to the end.  He must tell her brother, who maintained that when she took up her post with the fat library book each long Summer day, then slept on a cot in his room–that she snored.”

The Rags of Time is a twenty-first century classic, in my view, but it is generally underappreciated (especially at Goodreads).  I wonder if women’s experimentations with literary form are still less acceptable than men’s.