The Joy of Reading about Gardens


I am not a gardener, but I am thinking about gardens.   It’s nice  to think of flowers on a warmish day in March.  We dragged the Adirondack chairs out of the basement and sat idly chatting outdoors for the first time this year.  It’s all mud and brown, no grass yet, but I hope to plant night-blooming moonflowers: night is the coolest time to garden.

This year I’ve vowed to  plant something besides reliable geraniums.  Are moonflowers feasible?  I am inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a lovely autobiographical novel about life in her beautiful wild garden; Beverley Nichols’s insanely funny Merry Hall trilogy; Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, a collection of gardening columns from The New Yorker;  and Dorothy van Doren’s The Country Wife,  essays about summers at the Van Dorens’ farm in Connecticut.

And since I know so little about plants, I’m writing down all the flowers I come across in gardening literature.

Dandelions (got them!), lilacs, wortleberries, Virginia creeper, daisies, celandines, white anemones, violets, blue hepaticas, periwinkles, birdcherries, peonies, crocuses, Ipomoea, sweet peas…

The list will be long.

But where is my sundial?

And aren’t you inspired by this passage from Elizabeth and Her Garden?

I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture) but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden, in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies.

Indeed, so little did it enter my head to even use the place in summer, that I submitted to weeks of seaside life with all its horrors every year; until at last, in the early spring of last year, having come down for the opening of the village school, and wandering out afterwards into the bare and desolate garden, I don’t know what smell of wet earth or rotting leaves brought back my childhood with a rush and all the happy days I had spent in a garden. Shall I ever forget that day? It was the beginning of my real life, my coming of age as it were, and entering into my kingdom. Early March, gray, quiet skies, and brown, quiet earth; leafless and sad and lonely enough out there in the damp and silence, yet there I stood feeling the same rapture of pure delight in the first breath of spring that I used to as a child, and the five wasted years fell from me like a cloak, and the world was full of hope, and I vowed myself then and there to nature, and have been happy ever since

Three of the writers/heroines of these four books had hired help.  The exception is Dorothy Van Doren, who was an editor at The Nation, the wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Mark Van Doren, and the mother of Charles Van Doren, who was involved in a quiz show scandal.

Any favorite gardening books?

A Nonfiction Rival of Historical Fiction: Francis Galassi’s “Catiline, The Monster of Rome”

If you studied Cicero in the early-to-mid-20th century, you undoubtedly read Cicero’s First Oration against Catiline.  In the last quarter of the century, when I studied Cicero, professors assigned more “relevant” orations to entice us, and still later, I taught Pro Archia, Cicero’s brilliant defense of the liberal arts (which I wrote about at Mirabile Dictu).

You’ve got to love Cicero, even if you hate Cicero. Yes, he was pompous, pushy, and ambitious, but he was such a damned good writer.  And in his four Orations against Catiline (which I enjoyed), his vilification of Catiline seems over-the-top. (Cicero could have done a dark Dostoevskian character sketch if he’d been a novelist.)  Cicero claims that Catiline is  a murderer, an assassin, a conspirator against Rome,  a former governor of Africa who ripped off the people, and, as if that weren’t enough, says he raped a Vestal Virgin (who was Cicero’s wife’s sister).

But if you want to know both sides of the story, you’ve got to read Francis Gallassi’s Catiline, The Monster of Rome: An Ancient Case of Political Assassination. In this short nonfiction page-turner, Galassi writes an impassioned defense of Catiline, and accuses Cicero of character assassination.  After all, Catiline and Cicero were political rivals:  they both ran for consul for the year 63 B.C.  Cicero won.

I was glued to this book, which reads like an entertaining if slightly unpolished historical novel.  What will happen next? I kept wondering.    And though Galassi is not the only historian to question Cicero’s case, he  has devoted this clear, coherent book to Catiline’s defense. He depicts Catiline as an impoverished aristocrat, a soldier, and an aspiring liberal politician who wanted to reform the government and favored popular causes like agrarian reform..  And he was a  threat to the conservative optimates (aristocrats) and senators, among whom Cicero was an up-and-coming New Man.  After the senate blocked an election which might have passed some of Catiline’s reforms,  Catiline and other prominent men, including Caesar, conspired to take over the government.

Was Catiline a hero?  Well, I don’t know.  Rome was a bloodbath back then.  So I didn’t entirely buy Galassi’s argument, but I found it fascinating.

And it really makes me want to reread Cicero’s orations against Catiline.

And can anyone forget the first line of the First Oration, “How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?”  (In Latin it is: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?)

So many people abuse my patience.  In fact, I think I’m going to be saying this a lot now.

Why I Don’t Miss the Hustle of “Pop” Blogging

Writers  at a coffeehouse.

The best article in last week’s New York Times was Brian X. Chen’s thoughtful essay, “I Deleted Facebook Last Year. Here’s What Changed (and What Didn’t).”  Chen, a tech columnist, writes, “The social network’s long-stated mission has been to connect people so that we can live in a more open world. But after being off Facebook since October, I found that I did not feel less connected and that my social life didn’t suffer, even though I was no longer seeing status updates and pictures on my News Feed.”

Chen outgrew Facebook.  He marvels at all the time he wasted there.  Now he reads lots of books.

And he doesn’t miss his 500 Facebook “friends.” He sees about twenty of them in real life.

I relate to the pleasure of giving up an  online activity that no longer gives pleasure. I decided to stop writing my blog Mirabile Dictu last fall.   Six years: 1,567 posts.  Highlights: so many highlights.

I wrote all kinds of sense and nonsense.  And I wrote fast.  It was so much fun for a while.

But turning around copy is not the point at a blog.  As soon as the blog begins to feel automatic, it’s like work. Why am I  writing this, you begin to ask yourself.   Blogs get stale.   And I wrote such long posts (about 900 words).

The cool thing about Thornfield Hall is that it’s like a private blog. It’s a quiet place. Nobody knows it’s here.  And that’s a relief.

The “bloggers-reading-bloggers” thing has quieted down.  Social networkers used to comment at Mirabile Dictu so other readers would click on the links to their blogs.   One blogger commented daily, not only at Mirabile Dictu but at every blog in blogdom! It was a case of amicitia (political friendship), I suppose.

I can’t help their stats now. And anyway I don’t have my comments on all time!

Here’s the really fun thing.  I have received  mail addressed to Thornfield Hall.  I love the Brontes,  but never thought I’d be Jane Eyre!

I have saved the address label.

A Color-Coordinated TBR: Minae Mizumura, Julie Berry, George Gissing, & Joy Williams

Gorgeous Instagram photos!  How do they do it?

Bookstagram hypnotizes me.  Photos of pretty books, photos of pretty books and pretty tea cups, photos of pretty bookshelves, photos of manicured hands holding  pretty books…  Pretty feminine.

And so I decided to color-coordinate my TBR.

“You won’t.  You’re not fun,” said my cousin. She is fun when she’s not in rehab.  And she curates the library’s Instagram account.

“I am fun.”

“You took a picture of the books in the library dumpster.”

“That’s fun undercover reporting!”

I am not posting a fun pic of the perfectly fine set of Encyclopedia Britannica I found in the dumpster.  You know why?  Because I am fun.

I yanked some matching books off my shelves, but everything in my photo looks rumpled.  Julie Berry’s  Y.A. novel, Lovely War, and Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a book about English language dominance, obviously belong together. The colors!








I bought  Julie Berry’s Lovely War, because Entertainment Weekly described it as “a retelling of the Aeneid.” In the first 65 pages, there are references to Homer and Hesiod but none to Virgil.  (Perhaps the reviewer got her poems mixed up.)  But the gods pull the strings in human relationships: the  goddess Aphrodite, caught in flagrante delicto with Ares and “bagged like  a chicken” by her husband Hephasetus,  explains she is the source of love but never in love.  And she  tells the story of bringing together three musicians and a soldier during World War I.

Minae Mizumura is the author of one of my favorite books, A True Novel, a brilliant Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights.  Fandom is why I bought The Fall of Language in the Age of English.  So far I am mesmerized  by the  essay “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa,” which revolves around her month in Iowa City on some kind of International Writers’ Workshop fellowship. I know Iowa City well, so would be fascinated even if it weren’t for her description sof the other international authors.  And many are writing in languages with few readers.

I found more matching books on my shelves:  the 19th-century novel Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing, an olive green Dover, and the muted brown 40th-Anniversary edition of Joy Williams’s novel The Changeling.

The N.B. column in the TLS recommended Eve’s Ransom. And I love Joy Williams’s short stories.  You can read an excerpt from Karen Russell’s introduction to  Williams’ novel The Changeling in The New Yorker.

The  Instagram folks are skillful photographers!

À la Caffeine: Editing Pulp Science Fiction

“Why did I say I’d do this?” I wondered as I sipped a soy latte at  À la Caffeine.

À la  Caffeine is the chic coffee boutique for itinerant writers in our uncharted provincial city.  Managed by a library school dropout who has posted  “Shh” signs on the wall, it is a nearly silent cafe.

“Shh” isn’t everybody’s favorite word.  And so the clientele tend to be Renaissance Fair organizers designing Celtic Clan flyers, nervous Ph.D. students writing snappy dissertations on Sexuality in  Small Towns in Willa Cather’s Later Fiction, and freelancers desperately polishing reviews of “The Ten Best Homeless Shelters in Town”–for the alternative paper.

I often write such things myself, but today I’m editing a pulp SF novel about a race of “Uplifted” animals– animals who are biologically modified in labs to have human intelligence.

I am doing this as a favor for an editor friend who is  forced to publish this thing.

Wow!  This is ineffably bad.   I asked in an email,  “Did you know the hero is a  lemur whose ancestors are   blue ponies?”

She wrote, “Yeah.  Delete ALL adjectives and adverbs and cut to 30,000 words. Then we hide it in an anthology, submit it for an SF novella prize, and call it done.”

But where to start?  Here is the astonishing first  paragraph.

And so it came to be that Hal the Lemur flew through the tall green  trees of Madagascar Not-on-Earth  on the morning that Mam was attacked by the Madagascar Hawk. Hal bravely fought it. His Mam was not alive…not dead.  He could get help  from the  blue Ponies who’d trained him in Rhetoric and Medicine. And then he saw the Pony Ship was gone. Gone through space……time was a concept…time and space beyond Ponies beyond Earth…beyond…and he was alone.

But will it win the novella prize?

I’ll have another soy latte.

Grief, Dying, & Arthur Schnitzler’s “Desire and Delusion”

I have a new line on my face.  It is vertical, on my forehead.

I am still mourning my cat, Helen.  Torrents of tears. In her last moments, my husband said, “Kat, she’s still looking for you.”  I quickly moved my face to  the side where she had moved her darling face.

Helen with iPad

We picked up Helen’s ashes this week. The box is so tiny, wrapped in bubble wrap. And yet it’s still a connection to her.  It’s what’s left, and we’ll bury her in the spring.

Crying is what we women are told not to do. We stifle our emotions because  wrinkles will spoil our looks.  After a certain age, we don’t care.

I do feel sad.  And this week I have experimented with not smiling in public. Why should I smile at clerks, cashiers, dog-walkers (though the dogs are adorable), mammography technicians, or rude Millennials and iGens hogging the sidewalk as they text while walking? The only time I see people smiling in public these days is when they’re trying to “hook up” with someone (and isn’t that a distasteful phrase? Like a phone!)

And guess what I learned?  Smile or don’t smile, it doesn’t matter.

People barely look up from their phones anyway.


I am a fan of the neglected Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1930), a Modernist playwright and fiction writer who was a member of a circle of artists and writers in fin-de-siècle Vienna.  He was a doctor who graduated from the University of  Vienna School of Medicine, and his special areas of interest were psychology and psychiatry.

His fiction is strangely modern, and his quiet style an effective  underpinning of psychological realism and a contrast to the violence.  I recommend Vienna 1900:  Games of Life and Death, a Penguin collection of four short stories published in the 1970s.

Recently I discovered Margaret Schaefer’s modern translations, which are published by Ivan R. Dee, and are more accessible.  I love long-form fiction, so I was eager to read Desire and Delusion:  Three Novellas.  These superb novellas,  Flight into Darkness, Dying, and Fräulein Else,  are linked by the theme of death and delusion.

In the Dostoevskian novella, Flight into Darkness, the antihero, Robert, a commissioner, struggles with paranoia at the end of the  six-month trip which a doctor prescribed as a cure for a nervous breakdown. The story begins at a hotel after Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Alberta, who fell in love and left him for  an American tourist.  He second-guesses himself :  was he right to let her go?  Was that crazy?  Should he have fought for her?  Would it have made a difference?  But he feels quite calm as he  says goodbye to his acquaintances at the hotel.  On the train, however, he loses “his pleasant feeling of anticipation.”

Schnitzler’s interior monologue captures his horrifying psychological imbalance.

What he found…was no longer delight but rather a strange anxiety, as though he were being carried toward a crisis involving a significant, serious decision….  Would he now, after the many restful and easy moments of the last few months, be overcome once more by that incomprehensible something that could hardly be captured in thought–let alone words–and that seemed ominously to threaten something worse.

As Robert descends into madness, he  wonders if his ex-girlfriend Alberta really left him for another man, or if he killed her in the woods. He is  relieved to get a letter saying she has gotten married in Chicago. Thank God!  He was delusional!   But then he begins to fixate on his brother Otto, who years ago agreed to kill Robert if he ever went out of his mind.  He thinks Robert is planning to kill him.

This does not end well!

In the second novella, Dying, Felix and Marie are lovers who have been happy until Felix consults a doctor who says he has only a year to live.  Felix’s best friend Alfred, also a doctor, says his colleague was only trying to scare Felix so he would take better care of himself.  But Felix fixates on death, and allows it to dictate his emotions–and perhaps the future.  And Marie is terrified when he tries to get her to agree to a suicide pact.  Fortunately, the sanity of Marie and Alfred balances Felix’s madness.  In Flight into Darkness, the horror was unremitting.

In  Fräulein Else, Schnitzler employs elegant  stream-of-consciousness as he explores the thoughts and associations of a sensitive young woman at a hotel with her aunt.   In the preface, the  translator Margaret Schaefer compares Else to a teenage Mrs. Dalloway.  Through Else’s reflections,  we comprehend her horror and rage when her mother telegrams her with a request that she borrow  a huge sum of money to keep her embezzler father out of jail.  She is told to approach a lecherous old man who has been leering at her.   He says he will lend the money if she has sex with him..  But Else decides on a proto-feminist act, which is not recognized as such by the conventional guests.

Masterful, realistic, and beautifully-written psychological fiction.

We Will Always Miss Helen the Cat

Helen, 2013.  She’s the queen of lounging!

Helen, our 18-year-old tortoiseshell, died last week.  It has been hard on me, harder than any other pet’s death.  Helen and I were like bonded cats at the pound.  We did everything together: played string, read books (sometimes aloud), watched birds, had elevenses, watched six seasons of The Americans, prepared dinner (hers came in a can), napped, and listened to music.  She was fond of “You’re so Vain” (Carly Simon), “Year of the Cat” (Al Stewart), and “Mellow Yellow (Donovan).  Cats like simple songs.

As she got older, she spent most of her waking hours sitting with me (or on top of me) as I reclined and read.  She carefully marked the books by rubbing against the corners.   She was fond of books, because I’d read poetry to her as a kitten.  She enjoyed Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies:  “Far and few, far and few,/Are the lands where the Jumblies live…”

She didn’t meow, she chirped.  It was so sweet.  She was also a survivalist:  she liked to hop in the tub and lick the faucet. And she had a strong will.  She dominated the household.  She was a  fascinating person!  She ignored other cats, but they followed her around the house.

I had so much fun with her.  But In the last few years she had health problems and surgeries. She lost too much weight, shed clumps of fur, her kidneys were failing.  All the problems of aging cats.

I miss her.

Helen forever!

In Helen’s honor, I have translated and adapted the Roman poet Martial’s poem on the death of a pet dog, Issa.  In the first line, Martial refers to  Catullus’s famous poem about the dead pet sparrow of his girlfriend, Lesbia.

I have substituted the name Helen for Issa.

My adapted translation of Martial, Epigrams, I.109

Helen is more mischievous than Catullus’s sparrow,
Helen is purer than the kiss of a dove,
Helen is lovelier than all the maidens,
Helen is more precious than Indian stones,
Helen the cat is my darling.
If she meows, you will think she speaks;
She feels both sadness and joy.
Resting in my lap she stretches and snatches sleep
so that no breath is sensed.
In order that the last light may not wholly steal her,
I am painting a picture
In which you will see a cat so like Helen
That she herself is not more like herself.
Compare Helen with her picture
And you will think each one is real,
Or you will think each one is painted.

Floor mosaic in ancient Rome, with cat and two ducks.