Numbness & Human Recklessness: Stanley Middleton’s “Holiday” & Jeff Goodell’s “The Heat Will Kill You First”

I have been reading very short books in this heat: anything over 300 pages seems too demanding. A little Barbara Pym here, a little Margery Allingham there. And I reread Cranford, which I cannot revisit too often.

And then I perused two more short books, one a novel, the other a nonfiction book. They do not fall short of excellence, but they made me think, which I had planned to avoid till the temperature drops. I do recommend both of these books, with the following caveat: the former may depress you, the latter will scare the hell out of you.

The English novelist Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.  I am enthusiastic about most of Middleton’s  novels:  oddly, this is the one I like least. The dispassionate protagonist, Edwin Fisher, a keen observer and an intellectual education  professor,  has recently left his wife, Meg, and is on holiday alone.  Out of nostalgia, he visits the seaside town where he vacationed as a child with his family. 

Not much happens in this slight, if beautifully-written, novel about a man benumbed.  We first meet Fisher in a church. He is the last person one expects to find there, but again it is from nostalgia.  He notes humorously that the congregation “were almost all middle-aged or elderly, and the majority women, in flowered hats, bonnets of convoluted ribbon and pale summer coats.”  And though he doesn’t necessarily set out to meet women, his warmest encounters are with women.  He enjoys chatting to three charming sisters on the beach, though it is clear they have no sexual interest in Fisher.  Then he begins going to the pub with two working-class couples he meets at the hotel:  on a walk with the two wives, he feels them up.  One wondered if there would be a menage a trois

His father-in-law repeatedly visits him in the seaside town to persuade him to go back to Meg.  Fisher seems indifferent about the future.  He doesn’t particularly want to return; he and Meg have had some hellish, violent fights. His father-in-law is adamant about saving the marriage, but admits that Meg is ambivalent about the situation.   Perhaps it is Fisher’s encounters with the kind women on holiday that make him consider reuniting with Meg. 

Whatever the future, the marriage or the solitary life, we gather it may be bleak.  Fisher does not seem capable of deep emotions. As for Meg, we don’t know her.  We wish that Fisher had some strong emotions, but he seems to prefer living on the surface.  This could be a fascinating book, and yet I found it irritating.  So is this because I dislike Fisher?  I seldom judge a book because  I dislike a character, but in this case it’s probably true.  The novel is perfect in its way, but should Middleton have won the Booker for Holiday?  I prefer Valley of Decision, a stunning novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.   

Jeff Goodell, an award-winning environmental writer, describes the human recklessness destroying our beleaguered planet in his smart new book,  The Heat Will Kill You First:  Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.  Goodell knows how to shape a story: this dramatic nonfiction narrative about climate change is laced with statistics about the impact of rising temperatures, interviews with survivors of killer heat waves, a report of the death of a young couple and their baby from hyperthermia on a hike on a hot day, the impact of the tragic heat waves in Phoenix, the Pacific Northwest, and Delhi,  and  the limits of technology.

People assume that turning on the air conditioner will solve the problem of rising temperatures on Earth. Ironically, air conditioning warms up the air outdoors. And not everyone can afford air conditioning, though people now die without it in the intense heat. And then some have AC but can’t afford to pay the electricity bill. Even for the middle class and the rich, air conditioning depends on a fragile grid of power lines:  when the grid is overloaded and crashes. there is no air conditioning.

Goodell emphasizes the cause of the rising temperatures:  the human predilection for burning fossil fuels.

The Earth is getting hotter due to the burning of fossil fuels.  This is a simple truth, as clear as the moon in the night sky.  So far, thanks to 250 years of hell-bent fuel consumption, which has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2), global temperatures have risen by 2.2 degrees since the preindustrial era and are on track to warm up by 6 degrees or more by the end of the century. The more oil, gas, and coal we burn, the hotter it will get.


Every politician should read this lucid, well-organized book.

Too Fond of Bibliomemoirs:  “Horace and Me,” “Once Upon a Tome,” “Diary of a Bookseller,” etc.

The quote  “She is too fond of books” describes my affliction.  When I am not browsing at a bookstore, I am reading books and magazines,  trying to stuff all my library books into a Villette totebag, chatting at book group with a friend who reads historical bodice-rippers (Georgette Heyer, Diana Gabaldon), or rejecting a decorative scheme to move all my Penguins to one bookcase, alternating the black and orange indiscriminately.

My husband is an avid reader who says it is pointless to talk about books – sports is more acceptable – and yet he gives paperback dictionaries to his students and once offered a Library of America volume of Mark Twain to the plumber. I  wave all visitors to the giveaway box, where duplicate copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a paperback set of Sue Grafton’s mysteries take a rest before traveling to their destination: the library donation box.   

And I do agree that talking about books can be overdone. When I was a very young woman, I astonished a CEO, or perhaps an owner of a football team, at a party by asserting that all ancient Roman poets were winos. For some reason, I believed I was talking to an English professor. I pray that I didn’t rattle off the names of ancient wines.

Years later I read  Horace and Me, a stunning bibliomemoir by Harry Eyres, a Latinist and oenophile who is especially interested in wine in Horace’s poetry. And his translations of Horace’s odes are brilliant – the best I’ve read.

I am a great fan of bibliomemoirs, and read them almost indiscriminately. You probably have read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch and Me. But did you know there are several bibliomemoirs by booksellers? That it is, in fact, a genre?  I got hooked on Shaun Bythell’s charming series of Diary of a Bookseller books.   As  the owner of the largest used bookstore in Scotland, he meets many odd customers and is tolerant of the shortcomings of his eccentric staff.  Once, when he was away appraising the books at an estate, his staff spent the day reading old magazines and did not pack up  the Amazon books in time for the post That is what it’s like to own a used bookstore. So it goes.

Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade is my favorite of the bookshop memoirs.  Kociejowski is a poet, travel writer, former bookseller, and a historian of the moribund bookstore culture.  This is a fierce, lively, comical, and at times lyrical memoir of his decades in the antiquarian book trade.  He begins at the end of an era, i.e., the present, after his employer of 10 years,  Peter Ellis, decides to close the antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court in London and  sell books online.  (You can read the rest of my review here.)

At the moment I am  reading Oliver Darkshire’s Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller.   This crisp, witty book is a memoir of his career at Sotheran’s in Lond0n, an exclusive bookshop that specializes in rare books. This book, which grew out of a Twitter account,  ticks many boxes for me: humor, bookstore anecdotes, descriptions of mad customers, impossibly eccentric but endearing colleagues, the peculiar language of cataloguing at Sotheran’s, and (literally) poisoned books.    

The authors of these bibliomemoirs slip into the bookstore business without a plan, rather than viewing it as a career. When 20-year-old Oliver moved to London, he was desperately seeking a job, but, as he later explains, he had a bad attitude and often fell asleep at the office (undiagnosed narcolepsy).  He writes,

In a particularly dark moment, when I’d drifted into some far corner of the internet on my search, I saw an advertisement for a bookshop seeking an apprentice.  It wasn’t a particularly good advertisement.  The pay was Victorian, the expected duties nebulous, and the whole thing had an air of desperation about it.  More comfortingly, however, no prior experience was necessary…

Readers like me who don’t know much about the antiquarian book trade will be fascinated.  He writes about the  book runners, independent agents who search for valuable old books in remote districts or second=hand bookshop. Then they try to sell them for a profit at bookstores in the city.  Not everything is right for Sotehran’s.

Sotheran’s specializes in rare books, and they are quite picky about what they peddle.  The collectors want rare books, one of a kind if possible, and something as trivial as missing the second plate in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (“which should show Fanny fainting at some bad news”) can render a book worthless, though it would otherwise be worth thousands of pounds.

On one occasion they acquired a signed edition of a rare James Bond book. Unfortunately, rival booksellers spread a rumor that Fleming’s signature was forged. Sotheran’s had had it authenticated by an expert. Nevertheless, they never found a buyer.

It’s not a cozy business! A fascinating place to work, though.

Deep Breathing, Dystopian Classics, and Obama’s Letter to Librarians

I’m breathing smoke from Canada and coughing. I tell myself, “Stay calm.” I sit down on a tree lawn and riffle through my bag to find my inhaler.   It is buried under a small notebook, a paperback mystery, and a wad of Kleenex.  

One walker slows down and asks if I need help. “Or are you vaping?”

“It’s for allergies, “I explain.

The plastic inhaler resembles a Pez dispenser, but instead of Pez it emits puffs of albuteral sulfate. It was prescribed for my new allergies to dust, smoke, pollen, and the unhealthy particulate matter caused by air pollution this summer.   

I wonder how many of us are breathless in this new, quasi-post-Covid, wildfire-riddled world.  Some of us may have long Covid; all of us are breathing more particulate matter from the wildfire smoke. And we also inhale generous amounts of microplastics (little plastic bits) daily. “There’s a great future in plastics,” Benjamin was advised in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Information from scientists, the writer Bill McKibbon, the Sierra Club, and countless other environmentalists is ignored or met with delaying tactics. And because of the negligence of corporations and politiicans, we are living in the worst possible future: a dystopia where burning fossil fuels controls the earth, raises the temperatures, and burns the planet down.

And so we turn to dystopian novels, because science fiction writers speak the unspeakable and suggest alternatives – and most do scientific research before they write. Here is my personal Dystopia 101 syllabus (I have reviewed most of these here): John Brunner’s  The Sheep Look Up, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Karin Boye’s Callocain, T. C. Boyle’s Blue Skies,  John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and  Orwell’s 1984.

Of course not everyone has access to these books. That is another problem. And a growing number of mad book-banning groups are challenging books chosen by librarians and teachers, insisting that such tomes will corrupt their progeny. They campaign against classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, biographies of Democrats, and Y.A. fiction with LGBTQ themes. Whether they have read these books is another issue.

Fortunately, President Obama is a hero. He has written a brilliant, articulate open letter to  librarians on the importance of providing books that introduce readers to a variety of ideas.

Here is the link to Obama’s letter.

The Hazy Days of Summer: Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”

When Jimi Hendrix performed “Purple Haze” at Woodstock in 1969, most  of the audience was on drugs. They danced feverishly, they brandished tambourines, men and women took their shirts off, they made out with friends and strangers, and capitalist  “freak” vendors sold thick veggie sandwiches, heavy on the sprouts.  

It was not all fun and music.  It was, as prim Susan in Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, suggests to her nostalgic brother, Charles, mostly a lot of mud.  Certainly that’s how it looked to me in the movie Woodstock.  If you weren’t on drugs, the experience might have been unbearably muddy and sweaty.  And if you were on drugs, you might have ended up in the medics’ tent, because God only knows what you were taking:  some had the good stuff, some had the bad

I am not one of the four-hundred thousand people who attended Woodstock, which was held on a 600-acre dairy farm.  It would not have been my kind of thing.  Later, I went to a few local rock festivals that were disappointing.  But what I’m trying to say is, not all of the 400,000 at Woodstock got close enough to the stage to hear the music.

Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” was certainly appropriate, whether they heard it or not.  

Purple haze all in my brain,
Lately things just don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky  

 Of course I was familiar with Jimi Hendrix, recommended by somebody’s older brother.  I listened to one of his albums repeatedly on a portable plastic stereo. We mourned when he died of an overdose of drugs.  The same thing happened to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and the list goes on.  We’re amazed that anybody made it out alive.

The odd thing is, “Purple Haze” seems appropriate, even out of context.  By purple haze, of course, I mean the smoke, which has billowed down from Canada, where the forest fires are tragically out of control.  The haze is seldom purple:  it is more often dustily golden or brownish-grey, though it may have a violet tinge at sunset. It is dismaying, horrifying to breathe in smoke.

A smoky day in Chicago

In Canada, an area the size of Iceland has been burned and devastated.  The pictures of the forest fires, people being evacuated, and the smoky cities are bleak and terrifying. And as we have learned by now, everything is connected:  the wind carries the smoke down to the U.S., so  we  must check the air quality every day.  In June,  on two separate occasions, New York and Chicago had the honor of being the most polluted city on the planet.

We have been relatively lucky during this fatal season of wildfires. By some miracle, after seasons of floods, tornadoes, and derechos, we have had a startlingly beautiful summer. The sky is gorgeous and blue, with fluffy white clouds like woolly sheep.

We have been spared the worst of the smoke. We have had only one hideously smoky day, when the air quality was so unhealthy that we were strongly advised to stay indoors. And we did stay indoors, because it was hard to breathe.  Then the wind changed, and the air  changed back from unhealthy to good.  It will not, alas, be the last of the smoke.

 In much of the U.S., the air this summer has been like L.A.’s in the ’60s, before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. (Yes, Nixon did one good deed.)   Here, by the roll of the dice, a milder summer from the past has resurfaced. The comfortable temperatures have been in the 70s and 80s, with the nights cooling off to the 60s. My husband and I marvel:  we don’t need to get in the time machine after all! 

We are not, however, complacent. And so let me end with another quote (out of context) from “Purple Haze.”

 Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You got me blowin’, blow my mind
Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?    

Hybrids, Monsters, & Retold Classics: H. G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” & Silvia Moreno -Garcia’s “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau”


Retold classics are a big business, and many of us are fans.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, a retelling of David Copperfield, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize this year; and Louisa Hall’s Reproduction, a  novel about a pregnant woman writing a novel about Mary Shelley, which also includes a novella about her friend’s   Frankenstein-like effort to conceive, has been widely acclaimed.

And with my predilection for retold classics, it was only a matter of time before I picked up Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, a retelling of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.  

In Wells’s disturbing 1896 science fiction novel, set on a remote island, Dr. Moreau is a mad scientist – a later version of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. He works to create an improved race of men, infusing animals with human characteristics.    When the narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked on the island, Dr. Moreau and his assistant, Montgomery, reluctantly allow him to stay in a room next to Dr. Moreau’s locked lab.  He is horrified by the sound of  animals screaming as they undergo vivisection.  Montgomery tries to placate Pendrick with feeble lies about the research. But on walks around the island, Pendrick meets Moreau’s hybrids, and wonders who these odd beings can be. 

Before me… were three grotesque human figures.  as evidently a female.  The other two were men.  They were naked, save for swathings of scarlet cloth about the middles, and their skins were of a dull pinkish drab color, such as I had seen in no savages before.  They had fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads.  Never before had I seen such bestial-looking creatures

One reason The Island of Dr. Moreau works so well is the presence of Prendick, the outsider.  His appalled observations of the cruelty of Dr. Moreau, who rules his hybrids with a whip and threats, are especially vivid because of his shock, disgust and compassion for the hybrids. Vivisection was a big issue in the 19th century:  Wells calls his readers’ attention to this horror. Montgomery, the insider, has worked so long with Moreau that he is almost completely insensitive.  

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s compelling novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, is not quite science fiction. I would expect to find it with literary fiction, but I have also seen it in horror and SF.  It reads like an unusually well-written Gothic romance,  set on a lush, isolated estate in the 19th century in Yucatan, a peninsula in Mexico.    Here we have a kinder, gentler Doctor Moreau, whose hybrids are born in pain but are reasonably well-treated afterwards.  Although the hybrids are oppressed and in varying degrees of health, they are more human than Wells’s hybrids and live in their own huts. But they long to leave: they stay because they are weak and need medication. But they are not a secret:  Doctor Moreau’s daughter, Carlota, grows up with them, and considers Lupe her sister and Cachito a lively companion.

 Carlota feels that she lives in Paradise.  She has no desire ever to travel.  She is curious about the world, but experiences it through books and conversations with Montgomery, her father’s alcoholic assistant.  There is no romance between them, though Montgomery is certainly protective. And he is a bit like Heathcliff:  brooding and inelegant, but at the same time attractive – especially when he takes off his shirt and swims!

The trouble begins when Doctor Moreau determines to marry off Carlota to his rich landlord Mr. Lizalde’s son.  He needs a contract that will ensure he can continue to live on the estate and do his research.  Not surprisingly, he considers Carlota his property, though she is a free spirit and a natural feminist. 

Carlota is not interested in marriage – she has never known a young man – until she meets Eduardo Lizalde, a dark, handsome man with charm, good manners, and a strong sex drive.   Montgomery recognizes Eduardo as a rake, and doubts that Eduardo has any intention of marrying Carlota, but Carlota is enchanted. 

Enchantment cannot last.  There are too many family secrets.  And then there is an uprising of the hybrids.

Moreno-Garcia also has a political agenda:  in the Afterword, she reveals that there was an uprising of the native Mayans of Yucatan against the Mexicans and other powerful landowners. This is a fascinating political allegory, as well as a retelling of Wells’s novel. Overall it is brilliant, though the ending is rather like weak tea after several shots of espresso. I do look forward to reading more of Moreno-Garcia’s novels.   

Horror or Dystopia? Karin Boye’s “Kallocain”

“I’m scared,” said the Swedish writer Karin Boye after the publication in 1940 of her dystopian novel, Kallocain.

It is the most terrifying dystopian novel I have ever read.  And I can’t quite decide whether it is science fiction or horror.

It had special meaning in 1940,  with the rise of Hitler and Stalin.  The Swedes had to be careful of what they said or wrote, because the Swedish Security police were intent on not attracting the attention of the Nazis.  Karin Boye was so terrified at an election rally where Hermann Goering spoke that she made a Nazi salute at the end.  It could have meant death if she hadn’t.

 Here is the advantage of science fiction:  a writer can criticize the government or the culture in dangerous times without attracting much notice.  And that was Boye’s experience.  The authorities apparently didn’t read or even notice her SF novel.

In Kallocain, the anti-hero narrator, Leo Kall, writes a dangerous book.  He is too naïve to expect trouble but he says “it will seem pointless to many – if indeed I dare suppose that ‘many’ will ever have a chance to read it.”  He writes from prison, where he continues his work as a chemist by day, so he leads an almost normal life-– that is, if anyone’s workday is normal when he has invented a truth drug, named after himself, Kallocain.  

Kall discovers the drug in his late thirties, and he is eager for the state to use it.  All his life he has been patriotic, and he has never questioned the surveillance culture, or the role his drug might play in it. We can tell by his interactions with his wife Linda that she is savvier, more aware of the hypocrisy and abuses of the military government.  But the couple are  too conscious of the surveillance equipment in their apartment to discuss anything in depth.

 Kall tells Linda how excited he is when Kallocain is ready to use on “human material.” The “human material” comes from the Voluntary Sacrifice Service, a group of people who choose, usually when they are adolescents after watching propaganda films,  to have a career as guinea pigs in scientific experiments.  They don’t live too long – they develop medical problems during the experiments – but they are fiercely patriotic and are doing it for their country, or so they say.

No. 35 shows up with his arm in a sling, and does not look very healthy. Kall tells his supervisor, Rissen, that he wishes they had a “fresher” subject, but  there’s no one to send: there  have been so many experiments with poison gas lately.

Under the influence of Kallocain, No. 35 says he’s never felt so good.  “But how afraid I am,” he says, sobbing. He is unhappy and always afraid.  He talks about the propaganda that led to his choice of profession. After what he’s seen, he despairs about his choice.  He says, “It’s impossible to cope with this, even if you were once allowed to experience… But you’re ashamed.  Ashamed to betray the only moment in life that was worth something.”

When the drug wears off, he begs them not to let the police know what he has said.  He didn’t mean it because he was under the drug, he insists.  Kall and Rissen assure him that it won’t be held against him, but both know that most likely it will.

As the increasingly dangerous interviews continue, people are imprisoned because of what they say under the influence of Kallocain.  Kall is very excited about the drug’s success, but Rissen has a restraining, if not quite humanizing, influence on Kall. Rissen is a sad, brilliant, worn-out man who hints to Kall that there are some flaws in their culture, and that there might be people who would be happier living another way.  But Kall is so pompous about his scientific discovery that he gets angrier and angrier at Rissen. 

When the experiments progress to the point that the police are involved, because they can use it to convict anybody they dislike,  Kall remains elated and impervious to its misuse.  One day a newspaper headline says:  THOUGHTS CAN BE PUNISHED.  In a normal novel, a scientist would perhaps be mortified and terrified by  the drug he has created, but in this dark novel, the genius is so simple-minded that he finds the new law very logical.  And yet his simplicity does not alienate Rissen or Linda, who look on him as a dangerous, simple child.  

Dangerous information continues to leak out. One of the experimental subjects admits that there are groups of people who get together and don’t talk about patriotism.  They talk about nothing much, or are quiet, but it is a new way of being together.  To Kall this is baffling, though Rissen and Linda help him see things differently – eventually.

In our society, a version of Kallocain – truth serum? – has been around for a long time, and I’ve never given it a thought. Does it work? Is it used by the military or the police?  Anything that invasive should be banned.  Perhaps that’s why we never hear about it.

But our country, though it is far better than the dystopian World government that produces Chemistry City No. 4 , relies on many of the atrocious military weapons also produced in Boye’s dystopia. And I do not think it is a good idea for our country to use or provide these weapons to other countries.

Later in the novel, Bissen is given Kallocain, and says in a dramatic scene:

“Can you hear the truth? Not everyone is true enough to hear the truth, that is the sad thing. It could be a bridge between one person and another – as long as it is voluntary, yes – as long as it is given like a gift at and received as a gift.  Isn’t it strange that everything loses its value as soon as it ceases to be a gift?  ….  Community, you say – community?  Welded together?  And that is what you shout, each from your own side of an abyss.  Was there no point, not one, not one, in the long evolution of the human race, when another path could have been chosen?  Must the path go over the abyss?  No point where the armoured chariot of power could have stopped rolling toward the emptiness?…”

Bissen’s  words save Kall, at least somewhat, from uncritically embracing the military state.   This is a classic, but brace yourself.  It might be wise to have some comfort chocolate or a glass of wine nearby if it gets too intense.  

Reading Footnotes in Public, or “The Cossacks” and I

My dearest friend, who raises chickens in her tiny yard, is chronically late.  Once I waited an hour for her in front of the Apple store.  I thought perhaps she was at the other Apple store at the other mall.  Finally she showed up, saying she had had a chicken emergency.

This time we were meeting at a restaurant.  I was five minutes late.  And I brought a book. 

Have you tried to read Tolstoy’s The Cossacks  at a busy restaurant?  I read the first sentence, “Everything has grown quiet in Moscow.”

But there was too much bustle to read the second sentence: “At rare, rare intervals the squeak of wheels is heard somewhere along the winter street.” The servers hurried by with hamburgers, lobster, salads, scampi, and steaks. A man dropped his fork, and he and his wife argued about whether he needed a clean one.  The woman with the cheeseburger jangled her bracelet at the server. “This is well-done, not medium.  I cannot eat this.” 

I wondered if I could have the cheeseburger.

A group of women sat down in the booth next to me.  I cannot blame them for chattering.  But I could not read while they gossiped about their hairdresser’s (alleged) affair with their obstetrician.  It was like an episode from a canceled soap opera. 

I  decided to read the footnotes (actually endnotes) in The Cossacks.

Amalat-Beks…is the hero of the novella of the same name by the “Byronic” Russian author, literary critic, poet, military hero and revolutionary.

Who knew? Does one pronounce it AM-a-lot-bex or Am-AH-lot-bex?

The second note:

Circassian:  Native of Cherkessia (see note 13, below).

I learned from note 13:  the Circassians were a Muslim people.

Footnotes are fascinating even without the text.

If I had more time, I would write them myself.

A Charming Comedy: Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Father”

 Elizabeth von Arnim is one of my favorite  writers.  Like many movie-goers, I discovered her books after seeing the film The Enchanted April, which is based on von Arnim’s novel of the same name.  The Enchanted April is the delightful story of four dissatisfied women who escape the rainy English spring to share a castle in Italy.   Some find love; some rediscover solitude; one learns that men can love her for her character rather than her siren-like beauty; and all enjoy the beauty of Italy.  Wouldn’t we all love to take a vacation in an Italian castle? 

Virago has published several of von Arnim’s novels, and I have enjoyed all of them.  Now the British Library Women Writers Series has reissued her novel, Father, published in 1931. I am happy to tell you that this is one of her best.  In this delightful comedy, Jennifer, a frazzled 33-year-old spinster who is bullied by her father, a great novelist, is freed from her role as secretary-slave when her father  marries a much younger beautiful woman, Netta.

Jennifer loses her fear of him and makes her escape during his honeymoon.  On 100 pounds a year (a legacy from her mother), she sets out to rent a country cottage and make a beautiful garden.  She and her mother always wanted a garden, but had to make do with window boxes because father would never leave London.  And so Jennifer goes to the country to check out two advertisements for cottages, both owned by clergymen.   

The tale of her long, bewildering, tiring walk from the train will be familiar to those who tend to get lost in unfamiliar places.  She finally applies to a stuffy clergyman who refuses to show her the cottage (he is annoyed because she told the maid she was cold, and the maid allowed her to wear his coat).  And so Jennifer walks to the next cottage, exhausted, dusty, sweaty, and with blisters. She has better luck:  James, a timid young clergyman who privately believes the rough cottage is unsuitable for a woman, refers her to his sister Alice, who takes care of the rental.  And Alice, because of a spat with James about where women should live, rents the cottage to Jennifer immediately.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s first book, Elizabeth and Her Garden, takes us through a year of Elizabeth’s rapturous enjoyment of her garden, which also provides an escape from her husband, The Man of Wrath, and her family responsibilities.  So it is not surprising that Jennifer loves digging with a spade, weeding, and making war on nettles.   She wants nothing more than to be outside all day working in the garden.

And then something odd happens:  James, who is bullied by his sister as Jennifer was bullied by father, falls in love with Jennifer after an intimate conversation at night.  They sit on a mattress in the back yard, talking of things that are meaningful to them.  Then he kisses her and dashes away.  She never expected to be kissed; she doesn’t know what to do about sexual feelings.  But this single meeting is the catalyst for change.  The problem is that Alice worries that she will be displaced and homeless if he marries Jennifer, which, by the way, has not occurred to Jennifer, who is happy to live a solitary, single life.

A comedy of errors occurs.  It is really so funny that I will leave you to discover it.  But there is suspense, because Netta tracks down  Jennifer at her cottage, which seems very strange, as father and Netta are on their honeymoon.  Netta indicates that she is unhappy:  father wants to make love to her even at breakfast.  And Jennifer realizes that if the marriage fails, she will be father’s prey again.  Guiltily, she tries to persuade Netta to stay with father.

What will happen to James and Jennifer?  What will happen to bossy Alice?  The reader knows that Von Arnim will arrange everything satisfactorily, because this is no tragedy. I’m not saying it is not a good ending – it is.  But I will say that the expected delight is interwoven with an  unexpected event.

And that’s why I love von Arnim.  She can write about the quotidian and make it mystical and surprising, but not so surprising that it annoys us. 

Perfect Summer Reading: Richard Yates’s “The Easter Parade” & Nancy Hale’s “The Prodigal Women”

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.”  Thus  begins Richard Yates’s neglected masterpiece, The Easter Parade .  The reader so delights in his arrow-swift narrative that she forgets the foreboding note.   

The Grimes sisters lead a nomadic life. Their divorced mother, Pookie, fails at several jobs so this family of women moves around a lot. Yet Sarah, the older sister, copes well with their scratched-together life,  and informs the younger Emily about important subjects like sex.  Of the two, Sarah is the pretty, popular sister, and something of a daredevil.  She is strong-willed:  she stubbornly draws the line when her employer says she must go to the Easter Parade, wearing a dress of heavy silk, of the kind worn by aristocratic Chinese women, and mingle with the crowd.

She tells her mother, “I don’t care about the silly Easter parade.  Tony and I were planning to drive out to Amagansett today.”

 But Sarah’s boyfriend, Tony, who has a romantic English accent and looks like a young Laurence Olivier, solves the problem by  donning “an English cutaway, complete with flowering ascot, dove-grey waistcoat and striped trousers,” and accompanying Sarah to the Easter Parade.  A photo of the beautiful couple appears in The New York Times.  In 1941 they marry, and apparently bliss lies ahead. They are so in love that every time they have a cocktail, they entwine their arms before they take the first sip.  But after marriage, Sarah becomes a housewife, indistinguishable from other housewives.

Emily is by far the more ambitious of the two sisters, a bright young woman who gets a full scholarship to Barnard and does well on an intellectual level.   Her problem is with men. One man drops her because he is bisexual and  wants to be with a man.  Then a chubby, nervous intellectual, Andrew Crawford, constantly apologizes to Emily for his impotence in bed. She reassures him kindly, but does not know what she can do.   After a year in psychoanalysis, Andrew calls Emily, claims he is cured, and asks her to marry him.  Why Emily marries him I cannot say, but his problems in bed continue.

It is inevitable that Andrew and Emily should divorce, and after that she concentrates on her career in advertising.  She rises through the ranks, having a genius for copy-writing, and her female boss, who wants to give women opportunities, adores her for a while.  In her free time, Emily has many affairs with men.  This being the kind of book it is, she falls in love with a lawyer, Howard, who is very nice to her, but confides that he is still in love with his ex-wife, a woman who is 25 or thirty years younger than he. Emily believes she has the perfect relationship with him, but she never feels secure.  As she enters her forties and begins to lose her looks, she finds herself alone, with only her job.  Then  her career also takes a dive, and she descends into poverty.  She tries to write magazine articles about the fate of aging career women, but is unable to finish them.

Meanwhile, somewhere on Long Island, Sarah tries to write humor (she admires Cornelia Otis Skinner), but Tony tells her she isn’t funny. Much later, we learn that the once suave Tony beats her up once a month. Sarah does ask Emily for help, but Emily refuses to get involved because she and her lawyer lover more or less live together, and she doesn’t have room for Sarah in her apartment.  Howard says he  could find a job for  Sarah at the corporation where he works, but Emily ignores him.  And this lack of solidarity between sisters, as you can imagine, ruins Sarah’s life.  Sarah is unrecognizable: often bruised, with teeth knocked out. 

So what would have happened if Sarah had pursued humor writing and Emily had pursued journalism?  Would that have given them self-respect?  

In some ways this novel reminds me of Nancy Hale’s brilliant, disturbing, slightly maudlin 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Woman, which was recently reissued by Library of America.  In this pessimistic novel, the friendship of three women does not last.   Maisie, the gorgeous older sister of Betsy, is so constantly abused by the artist she marries that she agrees to have an abortion in South America on their honeymoon. While she recovers from a botched abortion (which ruins her health), her husband goes out all day and night and has sex with other women  Later, Maisie’s old friend Leda, who is from an old New England family, blatantly steals Maisie’s husband, despising Maisie for being weak and sickly. And Maisie’s younger sister Betsy,  happy as a career woman in New York, gets involved with a weak, hysterical man who occasionally beats her up. She stands by him.  Bye, New York. 

Although Yates thinks his two tragic sisters’ lives are ruined by their parents’ divorce, and it certainly accounts for some problems, I believe Nancy Hale’s thesis is also accurate.  Reading this alongside The Prodigal Women, one wonders if instead it has to do with the culture.  Men resent the shackle of marriage, or want to be mothered; and  the women (except for Leda) try to provide what is needed.  And Richard Yates shows us that women have a sell-by date, which obstructs the rise of their careers and their chances of marriage.

Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade is a small masterpiece.  A pleasure to read, despite the tragic trajectory of the two women’s lives.  And The Prodigal Women is the perfect beach read: Mary McCarthy’s The Group crossed with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

Fireworks, Gardening, and Gardening Books

The supermarket shut down the garden center to open a fireworks tent. Imagine my surprise to discover flowers had been replaced by firecrackers. I’d hoped to buy begonias, snapdragons, pansies, and marigolds at deep discount prices (75% off).

Fireworks used to be illegal in this state, except for public firework displays at parks, and that is the law in my city, too.  But anyone can buy fireworks in the suburbs.  The BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! has already begun. Naturally, some of my fellow citizens will put on a noisy, unwanted show, too.  I will turn on the AC to drown out the noise of the errant combustibles. 

I’m so disappointed that the garden center closed early. But on a philosophical note, the plants were getting pretty wilted. The cashier took one look at the dried-up snapdragons last week  and told me to take another four-pack free. 

Most of the discount plants are fine, but something weird is going on with the new geraniums: the petals in the middle of each flower crumple and turn brown while the outside petals blossom.   Some  gross wormy things live under the pot of marigolds, so I isolated it.  Should I throw it out?   And don’t get me started on the seeds:  I planted  sunflower seeds and coneflower seeds, but the plants are only 6 inches tall. That is, if they are indeed sunflowers and coneflowers.  Nothing has bloomed yet.  Everything is“deer-proof” and “drought-proof,” but how about “rabbit-proof”?

I ask, “Do you know which are the flowers and which are the weeds?” 

“Wait and see,” one  non-gardener suggests.

I love gardening books, especially memoirs and comical chronicles.  Among my favorites is Beverly Nichols’s Merry Hall trilogy, Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and  Sunlight on the Lawn.  Not only is he a great gardener, he is a charming and often funny writer.  He writes, “ I love geraniums, and anybody who does not love geraniums must obviously be a depraved and loathsome person.”

I love geraniums.  They last for years if you bring them inside  for the winter.  My mother and grandmother used to compete to see who could grow the best geraniums.  Mother always won.  “And I don’t do anything except water them.”

Perhaps I am also fond of geraniums because of my love of Elizabeth Goudge’s books.  I vaguely recall, perhaps in her novel, A Little White Horse, that Maria comes across a small hidden house with geraniums in the window. (This detail may be wrong, as I haven’t read this book in eons.)   Gardens are always important in Elizabeth Goudge’s novels.  In The White Witch, Froniga, who is half gypsy and reputed to be a witch, has a quasi-magical touch with her garden.  There are flowers, trees, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. She is a healer.

In E. Nesbit’s The Lark, her best adult novel, flowers are the bread and butter of Jane and Lucilla, whose guardian has gambled away their money.  All they have left is a tiny cottage with a pretty garden.  They sell the the flowers – until all the flowers are gone. 

Then they don’t know what to do.  Buy another house?  Plant another garden?  But it takes time for a garden to grow.

…they bought a gardening book – and spent the evening over it.  You tend to sit in the kitchen when it is very light and clean, bright with gay-coloured crockery and sparkling with tinsmith’s work; and when you have it to yourselves; and when, anyhow, you have to get your own supper, and you may as well eat it where you cook it…  Especially when the kitchen window looks out on the back garden, where the fruit trees are near blossom, and the parlours both look out on the front garden, the whole of whose floral splendour was just sold for fifteen shillings and ninepence. 

 What are your favorite garden books, novels, or poems?

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