Escape Reading: Ten Comfort Books That Beat Holiday Blues

This is the time of year when I like to slow down.  WAY down.

I don’t participate in the holiday frenzy. In the  glossy commercials, attractive nuclear families give orders to their robots, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.   Am I the only one who doesn’t want texts from my vacuum cleaner on Christmas morning?

I blot out Christmas till it’s actually here. We try to have a nice day rather than a gift exchange.

And the hours formerly devoted to shopping are now  spent reading comfort books.  Mind you, these are not all classics but they transport you to another world—and then you’re satisfied with this one!


1  I love D. E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington, a light, charming novel I inhaled in an afternoon.

Although there is a marriage plot, the  heroine does not want to marry.  Bel, an orphan from the country, has a good job as a secretary in London.  She misses flowers and greenery, so she makes a secret garden on the flat roof outside her window. And this secret garden is so charming that I didn’t care what happened next!

One evening she finds a man sitting on her deck-chair in the garden.  Mark is an artist, and almost immediately starts sketching her.   He is fun, but impulsive and selfish. I do love Stevenson’s description of the artists’ scene!

The other man in her life is  Mr. Brownlee, her boss, who  upgrades her job responsibilities before he goes on a business trip to  South America.  Jealousies in the office escalate, and she ends up out of a job and on vacation in Scotland  with her old school friend, Louise. I won’t tell you what happens–but it ends happily for her!

The Truth by Terry Pratchett  is a witty satire of journalism, set in Pratchett’s fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.

The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, a writer whose short stories were published in The New Yorker.  She was the  daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale.  She was inspired to write this memoir about her unconventional family by relics  she found in  her mother’s studio when she cleaned it out after Lilian’s death.   A classic!

4  Carter Dickson’s And So to Murder, a  fast, funny Golden Age Detective novel with no corpses!  Set in a movie studio at the beginning of World War II, it focuses on the foibles of movie directors, writers, and actors as well as struggles to close blackout curtains and the fear of Nazi spies.

5. An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde.  Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France. He hires an architect to renovate it. While he is away finishing a film, the contractors make a mess, and everything that can go wrong does. Any home-owner will appreciate these difficulties, even if his or her house is not 500 years old!

Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful  novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain.  An enjoyable light novel!

William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life.  These delightful autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two  in a series of five.  They were praised by Kingsley Amis and John Braine.  Neglected classics!

8  In Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat,  moody flappers and free love abound. The narrator, a writer, relates the tragic  story of Iris Storm, a languorous , beautiful woman of the 1920s who wears a green hat and drives “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot.”

9 Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in for the London Times, was published as a novel in 1939.  Mrs. Miniver’s domestic life is happy, she loves her children, one of whom is at Eton, and she  describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding.” In my favorite scene,  she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a  hat.

10  Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.  Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for her children’s books. (You can read an excellent article about her by Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books.)  I thoroughly enjoyed  Girl of the Limberlost, which I recommend to fans of Anne of Green Gables.  Determined to get an education, Elnora defies her mother, a reclusive farmer who won’t give her money for new clothes.   Mocked by the other students, she walks home crying.  Two neighbors discover Elnora’s plight and buy the appropriate clothing and books – and a local expert on natural history, Bird Woman, informs her she can sell moths from her collection. An excellent coming-of-age story.


Afternoons off: Cultural Adventures, or Reading?

I take one afternoon off a week.

The first rule of the afternoon off is:  No technology.  The second:  Have a destination.   Look at public art,  have an ice cream soda at the fun restaurant that never gets the orders right, or persuade a librarian to let you  borrow MacKinlay Cantor’s out-of-print novel, Spirit Lake, which is bizarrely in a special collection.

Fortunately, we had a gorgeous day, so I set out to look at public art.  I decided to check out the “Timeless Beaverdale” mural in the Beaverdale neighborhood.

“Timeless Beaverdale” mural:  I really don’t know where the hell this is!

The Beaverdale neighborhood has a mystique.  They love their Beaverdale bricks (brick houses), annual parade and festival (we always find squished candy on the street), and every business has “Beaverdale” in the title.

All right, I couldn’t find the mural!

There are several stores in what I think of as “downtown Beaverdale.”   But the mural wasn’t there!

And then I learned there is another block of restaurants and pubs near the Catholic church.  The mural is somewhere around there.  But the sun was setting, and the vampires would soon come out…

Another day.


There are more new”Best of ” lists every day.  Although the same few books tend to get mentioned again and again, occasionally you find something new.  Here are five links!

Shelf Awareness, the publisher of two newsletters for readers and booksellers.

The Guardian.  Best books of 2018: Hilary Mantel, Yuval Noah Harari and more pick their favourites

The New York TimesTimes Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Vulture.  The 10 Best Books of 2018

And last but not least:

Largehearted Boy, a compilation of  Online Best Books of 2018 links

Happy Reading and Happy Afternoons off!

The Shaping of a Liberal & Reading “Reinventing Anarchy”

The politics of the 2010s could not be more different from the problematic politics of the 1970s.  But at least back then we witnessed the rise of the ecology movement, the Clean Air Act, Second Wave feminism, the legalization of abortion, the end of the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Nixon.  And now the country is going backwards.

And that is why I am reading the 1979 tome, Reinventing Anarchy: What Are Anarchists Thinking These Days?   I want finally to comprehend the political views that inspired social change and resistance to government oppression.

I am not particularly political, but in my hometown everybody was a radical. Some were brilliant; others simply lacked good sense.  When I tell my husband about the teacher who taught me to shoplift (an activity I disapprove of, by the way, but which was then anti-capitalist or something), he asks, “Were any of your teachers not radicals?”

In this university town, the leftists were teachers, professors, students, freaks ( hippies), and  friends’ parents.  They believed their voices and actions could make a difference. Students pursued the Dean on bicycles, took over buildings, and marched the streets. Radicals formed collectives. And thus sprang up the Women’s Center, a women’s health clinic, day-care co-ops, a food co-op, free legal aid offices, and more.

Whether they were socialists, anarchists, or other I couldn’t say. I  didn’t know the “-isms.”

My closest friend was the daughter of radicals. We absorbed some of her parents’ ideas but in general ignored them.  We listened to The Band and wrote satires together. And we believed earnestly we would  one day be like Anna and Molly, the “Free Women” of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Damn Google!   I learned from Google that she died in her forties, survived by her parents and cat.  And the part about the cat got to me.

Absurdly, I wondered if our health would have been better had we had not lost touch.  When she moved away, her parents invited me to come and live in their collective, but I erroneously thought my father needed me, and what if I had to attend political meetings in the collective?  (I am sure they would have spared us that!)  My friend had a breakdown, and I had a couple of nightmarish years.  Were we, as Hillary used to say, “Stronger together”?

I picked up the anthology Reinventing Anarchy because one of the writers is  a couple of degrees of separation away.  And there are some brilliant articles about feminism, the failure of the electoral system, and the differences between anarchism and Marxism. There are also poems, cartoons, and posters.

I have crudely absorbed a few of their principles, and I assure you that they are the opposite of the stereotype of the anarchist.   Their goal is the non-violent destruction of hierarchy.  They believe small groups and collectives can be a means of personal and political liberation.   And of course everyone should get an equal wage, though perhaps adjusted for families.  But, unlike Marxists, their emphasis is really on working to better the community without hierarchy.  The writers of this book admit they’re a bit like libertarians.

Judith Malina writes in the article, “Anarchists and the Pro-Hierarchical Left”:

There is nothing integral to the nature of human social organization that makes hierarchy, centralization and elitism inescapable. These organizational forms persist, in part because they serve the interests of those at the top. They persist, too, because we have learned to accept roles of leadership and followership; we have come to accept hierarchy as necessary, and centralization as efficient. All of this is to say that we learned the ideological justifications for elite organizations quite well.

Very idealistic, but I do not believe we will ever see these changes.

The liveliest and most fascinating essay is  Kingsley Widmer’s“Three Times around the Track: how American workouts helped me become an anarchist.”  He writes about how the junior high coach used to punish them by making them run three times around the track.  This is his metaphor for how we learn to obey authority and knuckle under in the workplace.

I will not read all the articles in the books, but I understand a little more about anarchism.

And here is a cartoon in the book that I think is pertinent to today.

Wintry Mood Reading: Five Books & an Ode

It is dark at 5 p.m., and I don’t deal well with the dark.  Every winter, I struggle with the gloom and the cold.  Thank God the Winter Solstice is almost here, so we can look forward to the return of lighter days. Meanwhile, turn on  the lights, drink some wine, and get in the winter mood by reading wintry books.

Here are:


1.   Ice by Anna Kavan.   Kavan, an English writer who became addicted to heroin during a stay in the hospital in the 1930s, has a reputation as a “cult” writer. In her famous novel, Ice, the world is on the brink of an icy nuclear war, and the narrator is searching for a mysterious, fragile girl who has eluded her two male pursuers, the narrator and her husband (who thinks she is in need of psychiatric treatment). For those of us who’ve read Kavan’s biography, it is obvious that the fragile girl is based on Kavan, who charmed men but rejected them in favor of heroin.  The narrator of Ice tells us, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”  Lyrical prose and a weird trip through a winter world.

2.   The Silent Land by Graham Joyce.  The plot of this eerie novel is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife.   Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday.  One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else, and then there is an avalanche.  Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air.  They make it back to the hotel, which is eerily empty, and have all the food they need, but every time they try to leave the village they cannot get beyond a point. What is happening?  Are they dead?  This novel is brilliant beyond description.

3.   In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende.  In this gorgeously written novel, Allende deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man. The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York.   Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile,  is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why Richard, her cheap landlord and boss at NYU, doesn’t turn up the heat.  Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is also dealing with the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance  after the 1973 coup in Chile.  When Lucia and Richard encounter a Guatemalan refugee, they take a drive in a blizzard to save her from her homicidal employer.

4.  Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  I never appreciated this Nobel-winning classic until I read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s elegant translation in 2010. Talk about winter:  this brilliant realistic novel  has more snowy scenes than you’re likely to endure in the Arctic in the age of global warning.  Doctor Yuri Zhivago, an idealist, doctor, and poet,  does what he needs to survive the Russian Revolution but is separated from his family and conscripted as an army doctor. He also struggles with his love for Lara, a teacher who is the wife of a fanatical revolutionary.  Utterly breathtaking, history, romance, and snow.

5.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  In this award-winning science fiction novel, the soldier narrator, Breq, has trouble identifying gender, and is on a special mission in search of a special antique gun.  The book opens like a noir western:  on a winter planet (a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), Breq finds a body in the snow:  it is  Seivarden, a person he used to know and didn’t like.  Seivarden’s body, frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster, was recently rediscovered and thawed. She is  a drug addict who will sell anything she can find  for drugs. Breq understands her tragic history:  she refused “re-education” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand.  The two form a strange alliance.  You won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

7.  And as a bonus, here is Dryden’s  translation of one of Horace’s odes about winter, Ode I.X

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter’s weight
Oppress the labouring woods below’
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

Are You an Upstart? Emma vs. Mrs. Elton

Are you ready for winter reading?  Not a single flake has stuck to the ground, but the mix of mushy rain-snow is unpleasant.  And so I did a LOT of laundry today, and then retreated into a 19th-century novel.  Jane Austen’s Emma soon obliterated the gloom.

Each time I read Emma, I  focus on a different aspect, and this time  I was struck by the rivalry between Emma Woodhouse and the nouveau riche Mrs. Elton.  Mr. Elton, the vicar, married Augusta on the rebound after Emma rejected his proposal of marriage.   The first meeting between Emma and Mrs. Elton is awkward.  Mrs. Elton marks her territory:  she insists that Emma’s stately home, Hartfield, is exactly like her brother Mr. Suckling’s estate, Maple Grove.   She is  determined to rival Emma in society, and does not recognize their class differences.  (Should I say, “Good for her,” or “How annoying”?)

Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) and Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) in “Emma” (1996)

Nobody likes bossy, vulgar Mrs. Elton. Emma considers her an upstart, Knightley thinks her manners deplorable, and the brilliant Jane Fairfax, Emma’s only real rival in terms of education and talent (Jane surpasses her), must bear Mrs. Elton’s condescension as long as she lives with her impoverished aunt and grandmother.  Mrs. Elton assumes that a ball in Highbury has been put on for her, though it was planned before Mrs.Elton moved to Highbury.  But the best people, though they despise Mrs. Elton,  have such excellent manners that Mrs. Weston urges her husband to open the ball with Mrs. Elton.  (It should have been Emma and Frank Churchill, we learn.)

Mrs. Elton is a kind of shadow Emma. She does good works with less grace:  Emma has befriended Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown birth; Mrs. Elton has befriended, or more like dominated, the superior Jane  Fairfax.   Ironically Mrs. Elton “has a horror of upstarts.” When Mr. Weston explains that his son’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is not well-born but soon outdid  Churchill family in snobbery, Mrs. Elton says,

Only think! well, that must be infinitely provoking! I have quite a horror of upstarts. Maple Grove has given me a thorough disgust to people of that sort; for there is a family in that neighborhood who are such an annoyance to my brother and sister from the airs they give themselves! Your description of Mrs. Churchill made me think of them directly. People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connexions, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families.”

We have all known social climbers,  but the brazen Mrs. Elton thinks she has no need to climb.  That’s much more American than English, isn’t it? Am I an upstart?  I don’t know many upstarts,  because I am no use to them in their clawing to the top!


Dress Like an Anarchist & Other Challenges


“In 2017, despite getting married, vacationing in Maine, and remodeling three rooms in my house, I managed to read 137 books.”

This is not a skit: it’s a quote from an article about finishing the 2018  Goodreads Reading Challenge. Four bibliophiles who read over 100 books a year talked about their reading habits and their challenge tips.

Goodreads is a fun site, where I’ve found excellent books, like Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant novel, The Garden Party.  And I enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge.  And yet every year women bloggers and women writers publish articles about anxiety about the Goodreads challenge. Is this sublimation for other anxieties in the 21st century?  Or does the internet foster discontent?

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

Do we consume more books by participating in reading challenges?  Of course.  There is the Women in Translation challenge, the Pop Sugar challenge, the historical novel challenge, the TBR challenge, Japanese lit, Italian lit, German lit, and hundreds of others.  The problem is, if you do all these, you  won’t have time to achieve your personal goals.

I’m not a particularly political person, but after reading some 20th-century articles on anarchism and feminism, I started thinking about how the internet shapes our consumerism.  Marketers stalk us.   We are encouraged to consume more commodities. We must do more book challenges, post cuter selfies, read more books, get more followers and “friends,” and buy those adorable soft lounging clothes I now see at lifestyle blogs and crave, and why is there still a void?

In one of the articles I recently read, a feminist anarchist reminds us of what I used to know.

It is difficult to consume people who put up a fight, who resist the cannibalizing of their bodies, their minds, their daily lives. A few people manage to resist, but most don’t resist effectively, because they can’t. It is hard to locate our tormentor, because it is so pervasive, so familiar. We have known it all our lives. It is our culture.

I  told my husband that I might become an anarchist.  He said, “You’ll have to show people you are and dress like an anarchist.”

Well, I can’t afford a new wardrobe…

Happy Reading Challenges, People, and remember, you control the number—it doesn’t control you!

A Satire and a Servant Problem: Peter De Vries’s “The Mackerel Plaza” & Winifred Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”

Have you heard of Peter De Vries (1910-1993), the New Yorker staff writer who was the author of numerous satiric novels? I wasn’t crazy about De Vries until I read The Mackerel Plaza, which was a Black Friday special.

This hilarious novel centers on Andrew Mackerel, the intellectual minister of the comically-named People’s Liberal Church of Avalon, Connecticut. Andrew, a recent widower, wants to remarry, but can’t even date, because his parishioners keep dedicating memorials to his late wife.

How can he meet women? Well, easily enough. He meets Molly Calico, an aspiring actress who works at the zoning board, when he files a complaint about a “Jesus Saves” billboard. He tells her he cannot write sermons with this monstrosity in view. Molly agrees it’s tacky, but thinks the common people need an easily comprehensible moral philosophy.  And she wonders what the Apostle Paul would say.  Andrew replies,  “I have no idea, but Oscar Wilde reminds us that while crime is not vulgar, vulgarity is a crime. ”  And that gives you an idea of the witty repartee.

The plot complications begin when he asks Molly out to dinner.  Because his parishioners are watching, they must sneak around bad neighborhoods.  And Hester, his sister-in-law, who moved in to be his housekeeper after his wife died, won’t let him forget her sister.  Andrew is astonished when Molly suggests Hester is in love with him and trying to scare off other women.  Is she right?

I very much enjoyed De Vries’s portrayal of the outrageously funny, conservative Mrs. Calico (Molly’s mother),  who reminds Andrew of Beatrix Potter’s Tabitha Twitchit.   She primly drinks tea and talks about the importance of roots, says the family is coming back (Andrew asks, “Are you expecting relatives?”), and announces, “Poetry went to the dogs under the Taft administration.”

De Vries reminds me vaguely of David Lodge–so funny!


I recently read Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, a charming novel in the form of the diary of a vicar’s wife.  It is one of those earnest, slightly comic English novels about a Brave Englishwoman Who Has Only One Servant and Too Many Committee Meetings.

Bewildering Cares is a cross between E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver. I also kept mixing it up with another cozy novel I read this month, E. M.  Delafield’s The Way Things Are.

In Bewildering Cares, the heroine, Camilla Lacey, describes her life during the spring of 1940.  She tells us her husband, Arthur, is the opposite of the stereotypical bumbling vicar:  Arthur is a tall, dark, clean-shaven, brilliant man who took a First in Greats before World War I. The Laceys live in a manufacturing town, where they deal with people of all classes.

Camilla’s work as vicar’s wife is divided between visiting the poor and sick, lunching with the nouveau riche, committee work—and the women in the committees are  difficult—and managing the enormous cold vicarage.

Camilla divides the housekeeping with her only servant, the loyal Kate.  They share the housework and cooking, but cooking is challenging because it is difficult to find good ingredients during the war.

Camilla writes,

I often wonder if other women who are taking to their own work in war-time are filled with the same stupefied admiration for domestic servants which I feel now. Unruffled, they seem to be able to leave milk on the boil while they answer the Laundry and oblige with 3s. 6 ¾ d., wipe the flour off their hands while they respond to the Rubbish, break off in whipping up an egg to polish and take up the shoes, and keep a kindly eye on the soup even while, at the basement gate, a gentleman is imploring them to view the writing-paper in his attaché-case.

There is a  plot:  when the curate, Mr. Strang, a pacifist, preaches against the war, everyone is up in arms.  The Laceys wish he’d be more tactful, but they manage to soothe ruffled feathers.  Plus Mr. Strang gets dangerously ill—that, in fact, is what saves him from the witch hunt!

This slight novel, published by Furrowed Middlebrow, is very entertaining, and is available as a very cheap e-book.

You’d Rather Be Reading, or Would You?

Or would you?

There used to be an online community, we idealistically thought. The internet was the best thing since the counterculture. Remember Readerville and the forums at Salon?   I  also belonged to several online book groups, and was delighted to meet fellow readers at book festivals.   We saw the best of the internet, because we spent little time there.  Our slow dial-up barely loaded webpages.

With the rise of social media platforms, everything has changed. Language has declined (think Twitter), and fake news and misinformation proliferate.  Online book discussions have dwindled from mini-essays to a sentence or two.  I often feel I’m on a long, reckless drive on the back roads of blogs, book clubs, and book reviews.  Occasionally I find something good.

Goodreads is one of the better book sites, though I didn’t appreciate it at first.  I couldn’t see the point.  One blogger says she moved to Goodreads so she could lose the trolls. (Something to think about.)  Personally, I like the consumer reviews, and  I also enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which is a simple matter of stating the number of books you hope to read. Every time you note that you’ve finished a book, a picture of the book cover pops up. It is very cute.

Weirdly, many writers at online publications have written lately about their anxiety over their Goodreads Challenge.  And they advise other worried readers how to meet their goals.  (Let me sum it up : read shorter books!) What saddens me is this evidence of how social media can depress people.  That number bugs them, and they feel distressed that others read more.

My favorite of these articles is Angela Watercutter’s light, witty take, “Goodreads and the Crushing Weight of Literary FOMO,” at  Wired.  She does read books, but feels she doesn’t read enough. “How do I know this? Fucking Goodreads.”

Watercutter joined Goodreads in 2010.  She didn’t participate, but got updates about what her “friends” were reading.

Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed. Not only did I feel uninformed and slow, I felt somehow left out. I like talking about books, and thanks to Goodreads I had a constant reminder of all the great books I hadn’t read and all the conversations I couldn’t yet join. It was pure literary FOMO. (A point of clarity: I was also that sucker who tried to participate in Infinite Summer, the challenge to complete David Foster Wallace’s behemoth Infinite Jest. That summer ended in nothing but infinite regret.)

Keep track in a notebook: it doesn’t announce the percentage!

Yes, I, too, follow people who read a book a day.  And I get notes on their Kindle progress.  Should I be reading more and faster?  It’s hard to obsess about a number on a website, though.

I’m a pragmatist. I would never challenge myself to an unrealistic goal.   And since this “challenge” is just for fun (I like the pretty pictures of the book covers!),  it’s  one of the least stressful things in my life!

If you are upset about your Goodreads Reading Challenge, I have three solutions: (a) read short books, (b) change the challenge number, or (c) or keep track of your reading in a notebook, which doesn’t announce the percentage!

Famous People We Don’t Know



When a friend or acquaintance gets  famous, or even sort of famous, we are delighted. Absurdly we feel connected to them.  Not that we don’t love living in the low-key midwest, but few celebrities come through, except touring rock stars like Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney. And we don’t know them.

We are incurably bookish.  I grew up  in Iowa City, now a UNESCO City of Books, and attended the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For years I was a journalist, and interviewed dozens of famous writers, among them Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Karen Joy Fowler, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert Hellenga, Peter Stothard, Karen E. Bender, and Michelle Hunevan.

John Leggett

Over Thanksgiving dinner, we invented a game whose goal was to rattle off our famous “friends” who once lived in Iowa, or even visited here.  My cousin claimed she’d partied with Ashton Kutcher at the University of Iowa (possible) and had sex with Keith Richards in Des Moines (certainly a lie!); my husband took a writing class from John Leggett, who was reputed to be a mean bastard  (I don’t know why my talented husband gave up writing); I also claimed Leggett because I lived around the block from him (and the noise from his parties kept me up all night); we absurdly claimed Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who got her Ph.D.  from the University of Iowa and taught for years at Iowa State, because we’ve attended two of her readings; and I took a writing class from T.C. Boyle when he was a T.A. (Do read his hilarious Iowa City short story, “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the hero desperately wants to break into a Grace and Rubies, an actual women’s restaurant/club I belonged to in the ’70s!)

“Don’t you know anyone who isn’t a writer?” someone asked.

“Greg Brown?” we hazarded.

Yes, we have all heard the musician Greg Brown at the Mill or on Prairie Home Companion.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre

But then I had a flash! Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre! This brilliant comedy group, founded by five University of Iowa students in 1975, is famous. Their performances and radio sketches were broadcast on NPR, and they had finale show a couple of years ago . All right, I don’t “know” them, but Leon Martell  was the T.A. for my Drama in Western Culture class. I  do vaguely remember him perched on a desk in our discussion group.  And was there another T.A., Jan, who founded the Haunted Bookshop, or was that the second semester?  And  I think Leon may have directed the college production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or perhaps he played Oberon. And were the fairies on swings?

The Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre skits are hilarious:  I love their performance of “When I Get Rich” and “More Than a Box.” And you can watch their finale performance in San Francisco online.   Actually, there seems to be a lot online.




Dickens’s Dark Side in “Martin Chuzzlewit”

It is easy to lose oneself in Dickens’s baroque prose and enchanting, lightning-past plots.  He is one of my favorite Victorians, just behind Charlotte and Emily Bronte; Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite novelsAnd yet I complained bitterly this month while reading Dickens’s picaresque novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.  This weird, asymmetrical novel proceeds haphazardly and  plotlessly, until it finally comes together in a sentimental, fantastical ending.

The loose plot centers on the separation of old, rich, cantankerous Martin Chuzzlewit from his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit, after a quarrel about the young man’s determination to marry Mary Graham, old Martin’s companion. The youthful Martin ends up traveling to America to make money and almost dies  in a swampy settlement called Eden, saved by Mark Tapley, a working-class Englishman who wants to prove he can be” jolly” under any circumstances.  (He does.) Meanwhile, old Martin falls under the thrall of a creep named Mr. Pecksniff.

It is undoubtedly the villains who drive this  book. I  could not tell you who the hero  is, or if there is a hero.  But it will be a long, long time before I forget Mr. Pecksniff and Jonah Chuzzlewit.  I wish I could!

The sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, a fraudulent architect, hypocritical churchgoer, and windbag of an orator, swindles, plagiarises, and schemes to acquire money, including the fortune of old Martin Chuzzlewit.  And Jonah Chuzzlwit, who courts both of Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, and abuses Merry Pecksniff after he marries her, is willing to commit murder if it will advance his financial dreams.

Mr. Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit, illustration by Fred Barnard

Eventually good prevails, and evil is punished. The dead even come back to life. (I’m not making this up.) But even though there is a happy ending, it does not end altogether happily for Tom Pinch, one of my favorite minor characters.  Even the good can live in darkness in Dickens.

Dickens sketches Tom as a kind, merry, and moral character who does good deeds and will never get what he wants—and yet must feign happiness.

Mary Graham tells Tom Pinch of Mr. Pecksniff’s harassment of her.((llustration by Fred Barnard)

Tom is the one loyal apprentice of pseudo-architect Mr. Pecksniff.  Tom thinks the best of everyone.  And as, one by one, the other apprentices discover Mr. Pecksniff’s true character and are driven from his employment, Tom tries to persuade them that they are mistaken. Martin, who has briefly been an apprentice, underestimates Tom, whom he thinks simple.  Fortunately, others esteem Tom highly despite his credulousness. It  is only after Martin’s departure that Dickens reveals Tom’s true depth.

Tom is not a sentimental Dickensian stick figure, though it may seem that way at first.  We learn he is musical and transported through music. He is enraptured when he plays the organ at church, and when Mary Graham, who is staying with her employer Martin at a nearby inn, comes into the church for solace and listens to his practicing, he begins to play music she especially enjoys.  It is his way of courtship/worship.

Tom even saves Mary from Mr. Pecksniff, after she confides that he has tried to bully her into marrying him.  Mind you, Mary is grateful to Tom and loves him as a friend, but it never occurs to her to think of him as a lover.  Martin is handsome and Tom plain, so there is no rivalry. But actually, Mary has a very small role in the book, so we know very little of her.  She IS one of the stick figures in the book.

At the happy ending, characters marry left and right, but Tom stays single.  He finally has a good job as a librarian, but his fate is to live with his sister Ruth and her new husband, and to be a happy uncle.  Dickens’ final portrait of Tom–the last few pages are about Tom–disturbed me.  Yes, the writing is sentimental, but Dickens doesn’t spare us the reality of the life of a man who lives through others.  Dickens writes,

And that mild figure seated at an organ, who is he! Ah Tom, dear Tom, old friend!

Thy head is prematurely grey, though Time has passed thee and our old association, Tom. But, in those sounds with which it is thy wont to bear the twilight company, the music of thy heart speaks out—the story of thy life relates itself.

Thy life is tranquil, calm, and happy, Tom. In the soft strain which ever and again comes stealing back upon the ear, the memory of thine old love may find a voice perhaps; but it is a pleasant, softened, whispering memory, like that in which we sometimes hold the dead, and does not pain or grieve thee, God be thanked.

There are a few more pages of this.   Tranquil?  Happy?  Maybe.  Dickens goes overboard.  He is not this mawkish in his later books.

I am haunted by Tom!  I cannot think this a happy ending.  I can’t think Dickens does.

Dickens can be very dark, but maybe I’m reading things into this  because it is NOT one of his best books and I am floored by this ending.