Happy Weirdo Families: The Art Of Choosing What to Read

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Anna Karenina

Everyone is enchanted by the opening of Anna Karenina. The sentence is balanced, with the strong, clever juxtaposition of happy and unhappy. It is resonant. We all think: Yes, that’s the way it is. But I wonder in retrospect: how on earth would I know? In my experience, all families are weirdos; normalcy is the goal, happiness a chimera.

I come from a family of weirdos, or so they say. A friend’s mother described me as the normal child in The Addams Family. Well, I adored my mother, but the family unit was odd, I admit. My mother held things together as best she could, but dealing with my impulsive, handsome father was exhausting. The divorce shattered her; she was a devout Catholic and divorce was against the tenets of the church. But I privately think the divorce added years to her life. Life with an unpredictable person is nerve-racking. Perhaps without knowing it, she was lucky to lose him.

On the other hand, my attractive in-laws were glamorous weirdos. They were not the Addams family; they were more like Dickens’ Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester Dedlock, only with a family! I am sure they were popular and charming people, though I did not see that side of them often. It was the in-law dynamic that made them weird.

Lady Dedlock (Diana Rigg) and Sir Leicester Dedlock (Robin Bailey) in Bleak House

On the occasion of my first meeting with the Dedlocks, I was exuberant and expected them to be as charming as their son. Well, no, the atmosphere was chilly. I was about as welcome as Sidney Potier when he is brought home to meet Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? Yes, I am white – but I was an outsider from the midwest, of all absurd places. Did I like it there? Really? Pa-in-law was cold but polite – okay, I’ll take polite! I was grateful for polite! But Ma-in-law waged a war of snubs. She would make pancakes for Mr. Nemo, while I had to help myself to cereal. I had never (at that point) met anyone with such bad manners. But Mr. Nemo and his brothers figured it out: I was in a three-way tie with their wives for least popular daughter-in-law. Now that was funny!

All families are weird, but I must interject at this point that Mom was CRAZY about my husband. She and my in-laws had very different attitudes toward marriage, manners, and even books. For instance, my TV-watching mother let me stay home from school and finish Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. My in-laws had never HEARD of Lord of the Rings. In that family, there was a lot of judging a book by its cover – and Tolkien would never measure up.

Since I have straddled two worlds- the world of the weird and the world of the elite – I am familiar with the prerequisites for judging books. In the real world today, genre reading is more acceptable than it once was. I am keen on the classics, but I like to mix it up. The Dedlocks never, never would read genre.

HERE ARE THE ESSENTIALS. RULE NO. 1 Is the book in the canon? Is it published as a Penguin Hardcover Classic? There shall be no reading of Lord of the Rings or Ngaio Marsh.. Dorothy Sayers maybe: the BBC has adapted her books nd the films shown on Masterpiece!

RULE NO. 2. Is the book acclaimed in The New York Times or The New Yorker? No? Then why waste your time on it? The gods have spoken. The readers do not need to think.

RULE NO. 3. The BBC is sacred. Anything the BBC commentators say about books or anything is correct. Not only is it correct, it is superior to anything American. I’m an anglophile – but let’s not get carried away.

RULE NO. 4. What you read should be tasteful. So tasteful! Excluded from this category: Norman Mailer, Anais Nin, Will Self, Nicholson Baker, Jenny Diski, Lucy Ellmann, Donald Barthleme, Erica Jong… But James Joyce is okay!

RULE NO. 5. Science fiction is banned. Just look at the covers! Yes, the covers ARE terrible. And that’s why you never judge a book by its cover.

RULE NO. 6. Why don’t we all read nice library books?

By the way, I am reading Gene Wolfe’s critically-acclaimed science fantasy classic, The Book of the New Sun quartet, and poor Mr. Nemo thinks it must be trash. He has never read a science fiction book! So I told him James Wood had written a critical piece about it in The New Yorker. Well, it was someone else – but I knew the name James Wood would impress him.

When in doubt, say James Wood reviewed it.

Yes, these covers are terrible! There’s no denying it.

The Ghosts of Booksellers: Collectibles in Glass Cases

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, or perhaps in another dimension altogether, sellers of musty secondhand books were important members of the community. In every town you would find at least one used bookstore, whose owners were frankly an eccentric lot. The men wore fresh, tidy bow ties and dashed around the store with feather dusters, or looked like Beatnik refugees from the fifties who had just smoked reefer. The charming women store owners wore black dresses feathered with cat hair and dreamily recited the poems of H.D. I reverently tiptoed , trying to avoid the disapproval of the feather duster men, whose motto clearly was DON’T TOUCH THAT BOOK! and to circumvent six-hour chats with the black-clad chain-smoking women about their favorite author, Simone Weil, whom I had not yet read.

I went through an anti-social phase, when I took to peering at the rare books in glass cases, as if there were some possibility I could buy them. It was like going to the British Library, only there you peer at manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Angela Carter’s Wise Children. The cases in our bookstores were full of old books I could hardly imagine anyone coveting. Does anyone really want a first or second edition of Max Shulman’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, though perhaps one does want a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Years? Dare I say it? My paperbacks are usually nicer.

And yet I did make friends, or at least acquaintances, with booksellers, because I was a regular, and a buyer of books. One Christmas Eve, I was wandering around a bookstore gloomily, because I had trouble buying gifts for parents and other acquaintances. A shaggy-haired bookseller with rare social charm noticed me admiring a Folio Society edition of The Virgin and the Gipsy. “Take it. Merry Christmas! Nobody wants it. It’s been here for years.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t.” Bring out the midwestern self-depreciating manners! He insisted. It was a dilemma. Would it be wrong to accept the book? But he was not a dirty old man, looking for a snuggle, and I was a longtime customer, so I said Yes. It is far from Lawrence’s best book, but I loved it from this moment.

Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina, trans. by Constance Garnett

Now I know you will expect to hear that I became a collector after this. I did not. I prefer reading copies, whether they be old hardcovers or new paperbacks. I have acquired a few collectibles, of the kind that are not of great worth: a lovely 1952 Heritage Book Club edition of Anna Karenina, illustrated with lithographs by Barnett Freedman; a weirdo boxed Folio Society set of the Brontes in silk covers; and a Literary Guild abridged edition of Bleak House illustrated by Edward Gorey. Damn! I bought it for the illustrations, but don’t like abridged editions. Still, the Gorey illustrations are worth it.

Edward Gorey frontispiece Bleak House

The problem with these charming collectibles is that they are not all in great shape. I love the Anna Karenina, but I am almost afraid to read it, because the spine is cracking. Do I simply look at it from time to time, or do I read it? One must read! And the Bronte set, with the silk covers, is not really attractive at all. (I bought it at eBay.) There are illustrations in the silk books, but the new Folio editions of the Brontes are much nicer.

Doesn’t this silk edition look a bit weird?

The thing is: used bookstores seem to be in crisis now, because of the pandemic. The prices of used books online are ridiculous, $100 (and even $700) for mass market paperbacks I am sure are not in demand, by forgotten, possibly inferior, authors of the twentieth century. But offline, in their bookstore, the owners face different problems. I know of one used bookstore that is not open to the public, unless you are willing to pay $25 for an appointment. Perhaps the $25 includes the price of $25 worth of books? But I have noticed at the few used bookstores I’ve visit, that prices are way down, not up. Good for me, but probably not for them

Strange to see the high prices online, and to discover that pulp science fiction is now valuable. You buy it in a plastic bag for $10 and just wait what happens to the paper when you open it! In the stores, you can get much cheaper deals on pulp fiction. I say, let’s go back to the physical stores, if the poor owners can afford it.

A Great Covid Story: Hilma Wolitzer’s “The Great Escape”

I am writing early about Hilma Wolitzer’s charming new collection of short stories, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, which will be published next month. Why? I am bursting with enthusiasm over “The Great Escape,” the last story in the collection, a poignant, witty masterpiece about Covid-19. The other stories appeared in magazines in the ’60s, ’70’s, and ’80s, and I love the wry voices of the women. In the early days of Second Wave feminism, her characters cope with domestic overload, accidental pregnancies, touring model homes in suburbs (and making fun of them), worrying about a “sex maniac” loose in the apartment complex, and witnessing a woman who has gone mad in the supermarket. The stories are light, simple and graceful, fast reads, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

But “The Great Escape” is on a higher level, truly a great work of literature. I am sure there are many Covid stories now, but this is the first I’ve read, and it is exquisite and breathtaking. The narrator, Paulie, and her sexy husband Howard, whom we have met in previous stories, have grown old: they are now in their nineties. They pop pills, squabble, and watch the news on TV, but are satisfied with their lives. Paulie, though annoyed by the loss of her curvy figure and grieving the devastation of Howard’s looks, is spirited and funny about old age.

We’d both become relief maps of keratoses, skin tags, and suspicious-looking moles. “What’s this thing on my back, Paulie?” Howard would say, yanking up his shirt while I searched for my reading glasses. “It’s nothing,” I’d tell him. “I have a million of those.” Cheerleader and competitor at once.

And here’s another:

There were running death jokes in our family. My father, driving past a cemetery: “Everybody’s dying to get in.” My mother: “Death must be great—nobody ever comes back.” Howard’s mother: “When one of us dies, I’m going to Florida.” That would have been funny except that she actually meant it. Now, none of them was laughing or ever coming back.

Then one day their anxious daughter calls to warn them about the novel coronavirus, which, as far as Paulie can tell, is only happening in a nursing home in Washington. Eventually, Paulie and Howard are housebound in New York, wearing their “disguises” (surgical masks and vinyl gloves) on the rare exoduses from their apartment. There is a hilarious segment when Paulie’s book club attempts to meet on Zoom. Nobody can find the mute button, or the unmute button, and they are suddenly disconnected – after Paulie has actually raised her hand to talk.

And then someone catches Covid. Everything you have imagined or experienced, including separation from loved ones, is documented in great detail and with an admirable lack of sentimentality. And yet while the plague rages, dysfunctional though they may be, history holds them together.

By the way, Elizabeth Strout wrote the preface to this wonderful collection. Though England entertains us with The Diary of a Provincial Lady, we have the witty Hilma Wolitzer. And you can read the title story at The Saturday Evening Post.

Madeleine Moments: E. M. Delafield’s “Diary of A Provincial Lady”

I have been productive lately – and it is exhausting. My usual routine comprises reading English or Latin lit, while drinking coffee and listening to my Album of the Month at low volume (Rubber Soul). But this summer I am also making my way through a long, long list of classics. There ARE “Madeleine moments” of bliss in my reading, but quite often it is sweaty work. I cannot fathom why I thought it necessary to read Thucydides, but now I have checked him off the list.

Naturally, I am also relaxing with some favorite books, like Elizabeth Taylor’s superb novel, The Soul of Kindness. Oddly, Taylor’s occasionally bleak novels transport me to a place of comfort. The characters struggle with money, have complicated love affairs, are gorgeous but shallow busybodies, closeted gays in love with the wrong person, old people terrified of the future, and yet the details about domestic English life somehow fascinate and balance the quiet desperation.

I am always on the lookout for English women’s fiction, and so was absolutely delighted to find an essay by Sarah Lonsdale in the TLS (July 9, 2021) about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Sarah Lonsdale reports that, while others read War and Peace during lockdown, she enjoyed the six-volume Provincial Lady series.

tAlthough I do not agree with Lonsdale that the narrator of Diary of a Provincial Lady is a liar (she is diplomatic, but fantasizes in her diary about speaking her mind), I was inspired by Lonsdale’s enthusiasm about Delafield’s genius. “I must reread these!” It took an hour, with queries of husband’s knowledge of bookshelves and the use of a flashlight to find the books at the back of a double-shelved shelf.

In a way, reading the TLS was a case of deja vu. In 2005, Cynthia Zarin wrote a lively essay for The New Yorker about Diary of a Provincial Lady. I adored this uproariously funny six-novel series, written in the form of a diary by a middle-class English woman who finds herself at the beck and call of a taciturn anti-social husband, Robert; two precocious children, Robin and Vicky; Mademoiselle, a sensitive French governess; Lady B, the bossy wife of Robert’s employer; and the grumbling cook who blames lumpy porridge on the stove. Household management is somehow very funny, though there is also despair.

I am sure many of you have read these books, but in case you haven’t, here is the opening passage of Cynthia Zarin’s brilliant 2005 essay.

In September of 1925, the English novelist E. M. Delafield, who in private life was known as Mrs. Elizabeth Dashwood, was interviewed by the Western Morning News, Devon’s leading newspaper. The occasion was her appointment, at the age of thirty-five, as the first woman magistrate on the local Cullompton Bench. When the question turned from jurisprudence (Should women justices be required to attend hangings?) to women and fiction, she remarked, “As regards the difference between the male and female point of view in novel writing, I don’t think nowadays there is a great deal in it.” The only distinction remaining, she added, was that women writers lacked a sense of humor. She did not admit it was a lack she shared. Delafield began her career as one of the generation of primarily female writers who appealed to a primarily female audience – the so-called “middlebrow” novelists…. It wasn’t until four years later that she found her metier, in the diaries of a Provincial Lady – a chronicle of the foibles, domestic and otherwise, of an ostensibly ordinary woman – and became one of the most trenchantly funny writers in England.

Are you a fan? I have never cared for Delafield’s other novels, but adore the Provincial Lady series.

Two more in the series.

A Psychedelic Experience: Thucydides & Thackeray

Barry Lyndon (A Stanley Kubrick Film)

It was a psychedelic experience to read Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War and Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon the same week. The pairing is not what I call ideal, but at least the drunken revels of Barry Lyndon temper the graves and gore of Thucydides.

“Twenty-seven years!” I jotted at the bottom of a page of Thucydides. Yes, the war between Athens and Sparta lasted twenty-seven years (431- 404 B.C), and a careful reading might take even longer. Maps have been involved: “Athenian Naval Raids,” “Origins of the Plague; Athenian Raids in the Peloponnesus.” I imagine myself still dragging this book around in my dotage (in 27 years). I am fascinated, however, by Thucydides’ description of the Plague, which he caught and survived. Many were less lucky. “On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect: indeed, many houses were emptied of inmates for the want of of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence.”

I was very happy to turn from Thucydides to Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (or The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.). But, Dear Reader, It is nothing like Vanity Fair, his comic masterpiece. Barry Lyndon is mildly funny, somewhat bawdy, and a relatively fast read at 311 pages in the Oxford edition (349 counting endnotes). It grew on me, after a slow start.

Written in the form of a witty autobiography, boastful Barry Lyndon, who is born Redmond Barry, relates his swashbuckling adventures from Irish boyhood to impecunious old age. Set in the eighteenth century, this picaresque novel is reminiscent of Fielding’s Tom Jones: the sensibility is eighteenth-century, not Victorian. Barry is most sympathetic as an idealistic youth in love with his flirtatious older cousin. When he learns she plans to marry an English soldier, he challenges him to a duel and goes on the run after killing him. (So he thinks: the cousins substituted fake bullets so he wouldn’t interfere with the wedding) .

And then things go wrong. It is one mishap after another. In Dublin, he falls in with a bad crowd, who swindle him until he has run up many bad debts he doesn’t understand he has to pay. From there, he escapes into the British army to fight in the Seven Years’ War, which he confesses he doesn’t understand. (Thank God! I’d already done Thucydides 27-year-war!). He deserts, befriends one of the enemy, becomes a spy, and then a successful gambler, who learns about cards from a renegade uncle. Traveling around Europe together, they are popular at many courts.

Amusing as Barry is, we are aware that he tweaks the truth, and if we don’t suspect, we are interrupted by footnotes to that effect by the (fictional) commentator G. S. Fitz-Boodle. But am I interested in Barry’s exaggerated accounts of sword-fighting and gambling? No, not particularly. What I like is the voice of the narrator. And then since I always like love scenes, even when they go badly, I was thrilled by his courtship of the rich and beautiful Lady Lyndon – while her husband is still alive! When she is a widow, he bullies her favorite suitor so he daren’t go near her and tricks her into agreeing to marriage. And from this point, things go downhill for Barry -who now calls himself Barry Lyndon.

I do find Lady Lyndon a sympathetic character, even though she is pretentious and haughty. But Barry simply beats her down pyschologically. Thackeray’s wife apparently went mad after five years of marriage, so I wonder if he gave Lady Lyndon some of her characteristics . It is truly horrible to see Barry change from a sunny young man into a callous, brutal middle-aged man, and Lady Lyndon into a wreck.

A perfect book! I realized only at the end that this will become one of my rereads.

Any thoughts on Thackeray or Thucydides?

Happy Weekend!

Sneakers or Tennis Shoes? The Ray Bradbury Life-Style of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Before the age of clunky running shoes, circa 1975 – and by the way, my first running shoes were Brooks Villanovas, recommended for beginners because of the cheap price – I never ran a step in my life. God, no. What was I, a jock? I walked around the track in gym. My friends and I walked to class, we walked downtown, we walked to the mall, and we walked to the park. Every summer we shed our loafers, Earth shoes, or whatever and slipped into canvas shoes, known as tennis shoes or tennies. Oh, we didn’t play tennis. But tennies were ideal for our kind of walking.

Keds tennies or sneakers?

In other parts of the country such shoes were called sneakers, as I was aware from reading literature set in New York. But in the midwest the term tennis shoes prevailed. You can confirm this by Ray Bradbury’s sentimental novel, Dandelion Wine (1957), which is set in a midwestern town. The first chapter is a paean to tennis shoes.

…Douglas saw the tennis shoes in the bright store window. He glanced quickly away, but his ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun; the shop awnings slammed their canvas wings overhead with the thrust of his body running. His mother and father and brother walked quietly on both sides of him. Douglas walked backward, watching the tennis shoes in the midnight window left behind.

Although I prefer Bradbury’s science fiction, I certainly know the magic of tennis shoes. In our family, buying tennies was an exciting summer ritual. My mother took us to Kinney Shoes, a long-defunct chain, to buy Keds tennis shoes. These shoes, as I remember, came in white, red, navy blue, or light blue. Mother begged me not to buy white. Though they could be washed in the washing machine, she thought they looked dirty after a few days’ wear. (She was right.) But after donning our tennies, we mothers and daughters had a spring in our step as we did yard work, walked to the small neighborhood store, or dragged lawn chairs from the car when we attended ghastly Little League games. Cousins and male friends wore black canvas shoes with white rubber toes – they were usually Keds, but I do not know if they were called tennis shoes.

Are tennis shoes and sneakers the same shoe? Perhaps, perhaps not. According to a 1980’s Webster’s Dictionary, a tennis shoe is “a sports shoe with a rubber sole (usually pebbled) and a stitched canvas upper that laces over the instep (1890-95).” A sneaker is “a high or low shoe, usually of fabric, such as canvas, with a rubber or synthetic sole (1590-1600).” It’s a fine line, isn’t it?

This summer I am wearing tennis shoes for the first time in years. They are so light, and perfect for going out in the yard or a quick trip to a store. No arch support, of course. You don’t go hiking in tennies. But they are more practical than sliders, flip-flops, or sandals, through which small branches (and where do they come from?) seem to wedge themselves when you take a walk.

Any thoughts on the difference between tennies and sneakers? What do you/did you call them?

My Geekish Old Greek & a New Greek Dictionary

This crumbling Greek dictionary needed a replacement!

Ancient Greek is a bit like a crossword puzzle, perhaps more like a double acrostic. It is economical: in general, it takes four Greek words to translate eight English words. If you are a fan of Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Aristophanes, and Euripides, you adore the poetry and are also intrigued because the Greeks are not like us. We read from the perspective of Americans in the twenty-first century, so our interpretations do not always match those of the Greeks.

Classics geeks have the advantage of reading the real thing in the real language. At some point, every Greek student reads Euripides’s Medea (in Greek). And not only were we hypnotized by Euripides, we thought we might like Medea as a person. At one point she affirms, ” I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.” Very dramatic. We feminists loved it! She delivers brilliant speeches, but along the way we forgot she was a wicked witch: she cut up her brother into tiny pieces and scattered them on the ocean to slow down her father in his pursuit of Jason; and she killed her own children. And more.

These days, I prefer Greek comedy, but I must say the experience of unraveling the jokes is weird as well as surreal and funny. You don’t sit down and read Greek. Oh, no. You pore over dictionaries and commentaries and work to find the right words. I was tickled pink, as my mother would say, when a note in a commentary explained that “Tartessian eel”(now there’s a baffling phrase!) is “a delicacy for Athenian tables” (from Tartessos, Spain). Then the commentator refers us to Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Fishes. These notes are so much fun – and I especially enjoyed the reference to Thompson.

Greek dictionaries are a source of entertainment this summer. My inspiration for reading comedy is the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, a much-needed supplement or alternative to Liddell and Scott, the scholarly Greek dictionary written in the nineteenth century which is still used by scholars – and the rest of us. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is a beautiful two-volume boxed set, and the books have blissfully biggish print and modern definitions. Mind you, Liddell and Scott is useful, but the print is tiny and the definitions of the words often quaint. I am thrilled to have both “brand-name” dictionaries now!

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon has a brisk, business-like approach to to updating definitions. For instance, my old Liddell and Scott defines the word kobalos as an “errant knave” or “impudent rogue.” Love it! But the Cambridge is concise: the definition is “scoundrel.” And isn’t that better English?

The Cambridge print is the right size for near-sighted readers.

Like Netflix, Greek comedy abounds with vulgar jokes. The Liddell and Scott obfuscates the meaning with circumlocutions – and then they make no sense. The Greeks love toilet humor, but don’t look to Liddell and Scott for enlightenment. The word engkezo was new to me. First I consulted Liddell and Scott, who use the phrase”to be in a horrid fright at.” The Cambridge comes right out and says: “shit oneself.” Now I know.

There is also a joke with the word kusthos. My abridged Liddell and Scott does not include this word, so shocking is it. And the complete Liddell and Scott dictionary defines it with the Latin pudenda muliebria. Thank you, Liddell and Scott, for your wisdom! Fortunately, the Cambridge straightforwardly defines it as “female genitals” or “cunt.” Personally, I prefer the word vulva… but now I understand the smutty joke.

And so the Cambridge Greek Lexicon facilitates my journey through Greek. If, like me, you wear bifocals, I recommend the Cambridge with its larger print – yes, size matters! – but hang on to your Liddell and Scott, too.

The Blog As Performance Art: Are Critics Cool with Us Now?

When did my blog become performance art? Not today; it was definitely not yesterday. The years have rolled by swiftly, like an interlude in To the Lighthouse, only with less glamour and sophistication – so much less.

Perhaps the performance art aspect began in 2012 when, annoyed by the glut of attacks on blogs by critics, editors, and writers who regarded book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers as amateur rivals from hell, I decided to fight back. Gently.

The word “gently” meant, for the most part, ignoring them. First, we were not necessarily reading the critics; second, we could not comprehend the oddity of a witch hunt launched upon their fellow readers; and third, we had no intention of competing with them. Heavens, I wrote my heart out almost every day, rapidly and often awkwardly, at a goofy (now defunct) blog. I sincerely doubt this blog (700 subscribers) had any effect on the future of criticism. The subtitle: “A BOOK BLOG.”

Though I do not write literary criticism, nobody can say I am not a friend of the book. I may not love every book, but I love plenty of them. Mostly I read books by the dead, who are never offended by what I say. But I soon learned that no hint of negative criticism went unpunished. Someone emailed me about the death of a favorite writer but then went on to deride my blog. I was devastated by the writer’s death but did consider the bearer of bad news fucked-up.

Sometimes writers “like” my reviews. Cool, cool! Another time a writer sent me a card. Cool, cool, cool, cool! but then it was a disappointment. Neither my husband nor I could decipher it but we thought we caught the word “mean.”

“Take it as a compliment,” Mr. Nemo said.

Well, the critics, writers, and editors have forgotten about blogs now – they have bigger things to worry about. Other social media have taken over and blogs are now “old-school.” And so we reside in peace together – at least I think we do.

Before I end this post, you will want to know what I am reading: Robert Graves’s The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Patricia T. O’Conner in the introduction calls this “the best book on writing ever published.” So far, it is very good indeed, and more about this later.

Happy Fourth of July! & Reading Elaine Dundy’s “The Dud Avocado”

Today many Americans will arrive at parks at dawn, having reserved a shelter if they’re smart or snagged a picnic table if they’re lucky. They will spend the day barbecuing chicken and eating potato salad, driving people crazy with their bad music, maybe taking a dip in the lake if they’re brave enough to face the pesticide run-off, or walking in the woods with their bird lists until the fireworks begin at 9:30 or 10.

No, I’m sorry, but I’m too tired to go. Wilted, rustling around in a tattered “Bookish” t-shirt nightgown and slippers, I plan to spend this very hot day alternately napping and reading Elaine Dundy’s witty novel, The Dud Avocado. I adore this smart little book! Published in 1958, it has been reissued by Virago and NYRB Classics, both heavy hitters in the reprint game. Dundy (1921-2008), an actress and writer, wrote brilliant comic dialogue, and her voice is slightly reminiscent of that of the witty Eve Babitz. Elaine Dundy, however, is more “relatable,” not quite as outlandish and “arty.”

I keep giggling at the antics of the quirky narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, an aspiring American actress in Paris who has thrown herself into the bohemian life. She even has a middle-aged lover, Teddy, Alfredo Ourselli Visconti, so she feels triumphantly that she has left behind the stuffy mores of women’s colleges. And she doesn’t consider herself a tourist until she runs into Larry, a handsome American actor she worked with in a stock company. This time around, Sally falls in love with him at first sight, but he is less impressed with her. She has dyed her hair pink and and happens to be wearing an evening gown in the morning (everything else is at the laundry). Larry lectures her on the perils of “going native” and then tells her about the the different types of tourists. Sally won’t admit she is one.

“….the last type is the Wild Cat. The I-am-a-fugitive-from-the-Convent-of-the-Sacred-Heart. Not that it’s ever really the case. Just seems so from the violence of the reaction. Anyhow it’s her first time free and her first time across and, by golly, she goes native in a way the natives never had the stamina to go. Some people think it’s those stand-up toilets they have here – you know, the ones with the iron footprints you’re supposed to straddle. After the shock of that kind of plumbing something snaps in the American girl and she’s off. The hell with all that, she figures. The desire to bathe somehow gets lost. The hell with all that, she figures. Then comes weird haircuts, weird hair-colors, weird clothes. Then comes drink and down, down, down. Dancing in the streets all night, braying at the moon, and waking up in a different bed every morning.”

Sally calls him a bastard and furiously goes on, “It’s a pretty safe bet I bathe about sixty times as often as you…” But then she remembers: “To accuse the American male of not bathing in Paris is merely to flatter him.”

Such a charming book. I hope you, too, have an entertaining book for the holiday. And don’t forget the bug spray if you go to the fireworks!

Happy Fourth of July!

Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?”

Life in the summer is different nowadays. There is less sitting on porch swings as Climate Change steals our creaky traditions.

The summers were always hot – I tossed and turned and sweated and was cranky for the duration of many past droughts and heat waves- but now the heat waves are longer, and air conditioning is a requisite of everyday life.

My reading has been lighter (and cooler?) this summer. I recommend turning on the AC and flinging yourself on the couch with a cozy mystery or something moody and poetic. We all need a portal to an exotic landscape or a different culture. Mine is usually through books.

So here are two novels I’ve recently enjoyed: Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, set in Alexandria, Egypt; and Catherine Aird’s cozy mystery, Henrietta Who?, set in Calleshire, an imaginary county in England.

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR. When I talk about Lawerence Durrell, I talk about The Alexandria Quartet, a masterly tetralogy which comprises Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. After I finish one of these books, I cannot tell you “what it is about.” I absorb the mood, the heat and exoticism, the rich language, the absurd and grotesque characters, from the anemic exotic dancer to the transvestite cop, and the nearly psychedelic dissociation rendered by the steamy nature of Alexandria.

Our perceptions keep changing as we read these books: Durrell’s portrait of Alexandria is always in flux. In the first book, Justine, we meet the narrator, Darley, an English writer in Alexandria. He is madly in love with Justine, a beautiful, troubled, intelligent, promiscuous, canny, deceitful, exasperating woman who attracts men and women alike – and has sex with everybody, while deceiving her husband and lovers – and is not particularly concerned about the consequences. And at the same time we have compassion for her: she is a lost soul, searching for her missing daughter.

All men are in love with Justine, except the gay men, and she especially is attracted to writers . Justine’s first husband wrote a novel about her, which mostly centered on the Freudian analysis that did not work on her. Now Darley, living on an island, has written about her in the context of a portrait of the city of Alexandria.

I recently reread the second novel, Balthazar, which Durrell refers to as a “sibling novel” rather than a sequel to Justine. Darley learns that he has been mistaken about almost everything he thought he knew. Justine did not love him – she loved another writer (of course), and this writer adamantly did not love her, and told her so! Balthazar, a doctor with a mystic bent, has scribbled corrections and notes on Darley’s manuscript, which he refers to as “the Interlinear.” Darley has a sense of humor: the affair is over, and the new interlinear fascinates him. And the interlinear clarifies the story of Justine’s husband, Nessim, who is as haunted as Justine, and Nessim’s brother, Narouz, a very shy man with a harelip, who visits the city once a year during Carnival, always searching for Clea, a woman he has seen once. She has no idea who he is.

Steamy, surreal, tragicomic – it’s all there!

CATHERINE AIRD’S HENRIETTA WHO? is the second in Aird’s Inspector Sloan mystery series. It has all the elements of Golden Age Detective Series, except that it was published in 1968, which is perhaps too late for the Golden Age. Yet the crimes are committed off-stage, so we are spared the violence; Inspector Sloan stays calm and methodical, however ghastly the crime; and it turns out that the people of Calleshire have many secrets.

This thoroughly enjoyable mystery begins with the postman’s discovery of the corpse of Mrs. Jenkins, who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident on a country road. Nothing is as it seems: from the tire marks, the police realize that somebody deliberately killed Mrs. Jenkins, running over her twice. And when the post-mortem shows that Mrs. Jenkins never gave birth, the problem of her identity and that of her daughter Henrietta, about to turn 21, become the center of this quietly effective who-dun-it.

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